Nursing Home Volunteer

In 1994 I suffered from clinical depression.

I decided possibly by giving back to those less fortunate, I might then realize how truly good my life was.  I made the misguided decision to sign on as a volunteer at a nearby nursing home.

My first assignment was to lead a chapel service on the Wednesdays when the regular chaplain had her day off.  You may remember I was a kid who cut Sunday School for the better part of my childhood.  I described that naughty behavior in this blog post, Going to Church.

In spite of my lack of churchie (yes, it is too a word) knowledge, I accepted the job.  Each week I’d look up a Bible passage and dig around for discussion information.  My stooped, wizened parishioners sat in folding or wheelchairs in front of the pulpit–a blond wood podium.  I did the best I could with the limited tools I had.  There might have been about fifteen regulars.  Soon enough they hated me, sensing I was a fraud, and clearly not chaplain-worthy.  One griped that I didn’t even know the hymn The Old Rugged Cross.  Frankly, I found their attitude to be rather unchristian.

They complained to the facility director.  I was relocated and became a pusher.  Of wheelchairs.  I remember ancient Irene, slumped in her chair, her chin on her shrunken chest.  Her hair was thin, greasy, and smelled foul.  A nurse approached me to suggest I roll the elderly lady out to a patch of sunlight.

No sooner did I grab the chair handles than her head whipped up and she began to scream.  “Don’t you dare push me!  I refuse to go!” I began to back off, but the nurse insisted I wheel her outside anyway.

So I did. As we were rolling along Irene said, “You lean down here.  I have something important to tell you.”  Compliant, I bent over and listened. “Closer!” I leaned in more, whereupon she declared “I hate you.  I am going to take you to the pond and drown you.  I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again.”  After that, I gave Irene wide berth.

Another patient, Ruth, was always yelling, “I have to go to the bathroom. I have to pee right now!”  But she was catheterized.  The nurses told me that was her daily lament.

One snowy winter day I arrived wearing tall white Sorel snow boots, a muffler, down coat, and heavy mittens.  Before I even had a chance to take off my outer-wear the nurses called me to their station.  They were laughing uncontrollably about a little old married couple who shared a room.

Walter and Mavis.  When Mavis was young she owned a flower shop in Chicago. She spent hours describing how she decorated her store window for different holidays.  Roses on Valentines, poinsettia’s at Christmas.

Walter and Mavis often bickered.  She claimed he had an affair somewhere along the way.  Mavis shuffled about in rubber soled terry slippers and a house coat.  Walter was rarely out of pajamas.

The morning of the laughing had begun when the nurses heard Walter loudly begging for help.  He kept repeating, “Help Me!  Someone rescue me right now.   I’m an old man.  I don’t want to do this.”

They raced down the long linoleum tiled hall, threw open Walter’s door, and there he was, flat on his back in bed.  Over him, bathrobe up around her hips, squatting over old Walter’s face, was Mavis!  Twenty-three years later that story still makes me giggle.

Then there was Bobby.  He was in his early twenties and suffered from hydrocephalus.  He had an enormous misshapen head, one eye bulged eerily, his lips were pulled back in a  permanent grimace.  Wheelchair bound, he stammered unintelligible conversation.  He spent hours gripping a pencil, trying to learn to write his name on wide lined children’s paper.  Bobby had one passion.  He adored the Chicago Bulls.  He particularly idolized Michael Jordan and had a full-size poster of Air Jordan on the wall next to his hospital bed.

At the time we lived near a golfer named John.  He was our Country Club champion.  Jordan belonged to the club.  He and John were regular golfing partners.  I approached John, told him about Bobby and asked if it might be possible to get an autographed photo of Micheal for him.  Several weeks later John gave me the photograph.  It was signed “To Bobby.  All the Best, Michael Jordan.”  I had it framed.  I was heart-warming to see that young man light up when he held the photograph in his hands. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to thrill someone simply by writing your name?

Somewhere in my old house, there is probably still a photo taken of the two of us that day. Bobby is clutching his picture frame and wearing what was his version of a smile.  Crouched next to his wheelchair is a painfully thin woman smiling a wide smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes.

There were many sad, wilted men and woman abandoned for hours in front of the community room television.  I read to a woman who was blind.  I listened as another complained that family had dumped her there and they never visited.  Yet the walls of her room were filled with tempera on construction paper paintings from grandkids who were in and out of her room regularly, hauled along by her adult kids.  She simply couldn’t remember their visits.

Each week when I arrived I was met with the news that another patient had passed away.  Ultimately I simply couldn’t bear walking into the place anymore.  It smelled heavily of urine, disinfectant, and loneliness.  I turned in my volunteer pass and moved on.  I don’t remember what I moved on to, but surely is was something less heartbreaking.

If you are depressed and considering a similar volunteer job, DO NOT GO THERE.








Talking about the agonizing parts of life’s travels. Is it okay make this stuff public?

Yesterday I got an email from a beloved friend.  She shared her confusion regarding my blogging about the private, personal, painful, parts of my life’s journey.  I appreciate her candor.  Her email was good because I began reflecting on why I’ve been so open.

My mother and father would be horrified to know I’ve told the stories of my depression and Daddy’s death.  They were very private people.

Here’s what I’ve sorted out—I began this blog for two reasons:  I wanted to write and I wanted my kids to know me as a humanoid beyond being their mom.

My humanoid truths, my personal journey, isn’t all giggles, rainbows, and puppies.  I’ve lived some tough stuff.  We’ve ALL lived some tough stuff.

When the cleaning ladies come they turn back the corners of our area rugs and wipe up the cooties living under there.  The first time they came I bet there were loads of cooties.

Life delivers cooties.  Some people prefer to keep life’s cooties under cover. That’s fine for them.  My experience of keeping cooties buried created illness.  I became clinically depressed when I tried to shove my dirty secrets down.  I bet other people have too.  It took years of honest therapy, exploring those secrets before I became healthy and felt safe in my own skin, voicing my own opinions.

It could be argued I should have written my truths to my kids privately– it wasn’t necessary to put them on view to the entire planet.

Here on my blog I can look at my “statistics”.  Those stats reveal how many views per day,  where those views came from.  I’ve observed the painful blog posts–daddy’s death, my depression–have gotten more “clicks” than the other posts, as well as the most positive feedback.  Those stories have touched people all over the planet, from places as far-ranging as India, China, Pakistan, Ireland, Philippines, Australia, Germany, UK, and Israel.

Why are those posts the most viewed?  I asked my insightful step-daughter, Amy, exactly that.  Why do so many people want to read the sad stuff?  She thought perhaps because we all live sad stuff, but few of us talk about our difficult life affairs.  People need to know they aren’t alone.  Maybe it helps to hear there is a light at the end of even the longest, darkest tunnel.  Hopefully, eventually, they will step into the light.

I want my children to know they can survive the tough stuff.  In my experience surviving the painful, horrifying life events meant pulling them out from under the carpet.  It meant examining those dreadful moments, reliving them and then purging.  A garage sale of the heart.

This blog is about my life’s travels.  Most of my life’s excursions have been mundane.  Some have been delightful.  Yay for that.  And a few have brought me to my knees with heartbreak and despair.  My kids will live through their own on-their-knees moments.  I want them to trust that suffering needn’t only be survived, but through suffering, they will ultimately thrive.  Perhaps they can choose to use the pain, examine it, grow from it, and possibly even share it.  With sharing they can help someone else weather a personal storm.

So….Thank you, good friend, for your honest email.  I know being this candid makes some people in my world uncomfortable.  That’s okay.  This is my venture.  Warts and all it’s what I’ve lived.  I’m simply blowing the cooties out.  And, with a bit of luck,  I’m helping someone else know they can flourish in spite of having endured despair.


My Father’s Death. I’m posting this with hesitation.

In November of 1989, my father committed suicide.  It was years before I could dredge up an “and that’s good because….” about Daddy’s choice.

I won’t go into the grim details.  What I will share is this:

My former husband and I had recently moved from Delaware to the Chicago suburbs.   East coast friends Sally and Frank were planning a Thanksgiving visit. I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing them and sharing our Thanksgiving holiday.  I had just carried in a mountain of groceries when I got the phone call.  The caller? My mother’s close friend Grace.

I distinctly remember that moment.  The grocery bags piled on the counter, waiting to be unpacked. It was an unusually bright day, sunlight streaming in the kitchen windows.  A ringing phone was odd.  We knew few people.  At that time the phone was a land-line on our white built-in kitchen desk.  Even today, with crystal clarity, I can visualize the random papers on the desk, my blue date book, kids crayoned artwork strewn across the surface.

Grace imparted the horrifying facts and my life was forever changed.  Yet, I wasn’t wholly surprised at the news.

The summer before our move I dreamt mother was calling me, begging for help.  She was sobbing, pleading and repeating, “Please, someone help me. Someone, anyone…I need help.”  The following day I phoned her and shared my odd dream experience. She began to cry, saying, “Thank God.  I have been praying somebody would hear me.  I am terrified.”

Daddy had forbidden her to tell anyone what was happening to him.  In a whisper, she spilled her fears.  He had been behaving weirdly.  Pacing, muttering obsessive thoughts, voicing suicidal ideas.  Mother was frightened and unsure where to turn.

My father was clearly losing his mind, a mind he was very proud of.  During World War II when he applied for Navy service his IQ was tested. He was told his was among the highest the Navy had ever measured.  The prospective loss of his brain horrified him.

She and I took my reluctant father to the family doctor, Perry Mitchell.  He suggested a psychiatrist.  At first, Daddy stubbornly refused to go.  In the 70’s he had told me “admitting to mental health issues is too much to live down” citing the Thomas Eagleton scandal.  Missouri U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton had been hospitalized on three occasions for depression and had undergone electroshock therapy.  He was presidential candidate George McGovern’s running mate.  The revelation of Eagleton’s mental health embarrassment destroyed McGovern’s chance of election.  This had convinced my father one never reveals such issues.   Finally, we prevailed and Daddy saw the doctor.

Shortly after that doctor’s visit, my little family moved from our home near mother to the Chicago suburbs.

My parents continued to seek treatment.  Tests were run.  Ultimately hospitalization was recommended.

In September of 1989, my father was committed to a Wilmington, Delaware psychiatric hospital.  I flew home.  Mother and I visited him daily.  On the community, room wall hung a large white board.  On it was drawn a big pyramid.  The names of the patients were written with the “healthiest*” patients names on the bottom of the pyramid.  The “strangest/most flawed*” (my words, not theirs*) were at the top.  My intelligent father was at the apex of that grim triangle.

One young man wandered the halls, greasy lank hair in his vacant eyes.  He tried to hand a filthy comb to everyone he passed.   That young man’s name was on the lowest level.  Daddy was humiliated.

I have no memory of the exact words explaining the tiers, but their intent wasn’t lost on anyone.

Following his hospitalization mother brought him home.  He paced the circle of their first floor all day, every day.  Through the kitchen, into the dining room, living room, family room and back to the kitchen.  Each trip through the kitchen he would bend over the sink and drink from the faucet. Then he’d be back to pacing.

The day he died he left a rambling, illegible suicide note.  It was scribbled in pencil on a piece of aqua blue construction paper.

Following his death, it was concluded he’d likely been ill with mad cow disease aka Creutzfeldt-Jacob.   He was diagnosed by his symptoms which included seizures, dementia, radical personality changes, paranoia, and hallucinations.  A definitive diagnosis would have required brain biopsy, but that wasn’t possible.

My poor mother was so broken by his death, but she was stoic and kept her head up.  Suicide is a shameful death. Following a suicide, individuals avoid the mourner.  They avert their eyes, stammer uncomfortably, and give a wide birth.  Mother felt isolated by her shame.

Fast forward four years and I had my own suicidal episode.  Clinical Depression  She came to the mid-west to take care of our kids while my husband worked.  They visited my locked-down, dismal hospital.  That poor woman….I cannot imagine her terrible fear that I might make the same gruesome decision.

Now I’m coming to the “this is good because….” part of my Dad’s death.

Even at my lowest point, I remembered the horror of losing a loved one to suicide.  The depth of my sorrow is forever etched into my heart.  I simply could not, would not inflict the same trauma on my kids.  Due to my father’s illness and fatal final action, Matthew and Maureen didn’t lose their mother when they were thirteen and ten.

Daddy, I love you. Someday,  hopefully, none too soon,  I’ll see you on the other side.


Clinical Depression

In 1993 I suffered severe clinical depression. It took years to find the “…and that’s good because” of that illness. At the time I felt ashamed of my inability to be happy. I had all the trappings intended to make for a joyful life. I had–and still have–two beautiful, healthy kids. My son was thirteen at the time, my daughter was ten. I lived an affluent life in a gated country club community. Fancy cars, fancy clothes, fancy travel.

But I couldn’t stop crying. No one knew I was so ill. I was the master of slapping on a smile and faking happiness. Sure, there were signs that old friends would have recognized, but we’d moved away from old friends shortly before the illness began. New friends commented on how much weight I was losing and how good I was looking. Ultimately I became concentration camp skeletal.

I was suicidal.

Each day I would fake being happy mommy long enough to see my kids off to school. Then I would crawl into the bed and curl up in a fetal position. I made it my rule to stay on the bed, reasoning if I got off I might make a fatal choice. When they arrived home, I resumed that odd grin until they went to bed at night.

Ultimately I was hospitalized. Upon arrival attendants took my picture. The result showed a shrunken woman, hollow cheeks, sorrowful eyes. She was wearing a strange toothy grin.

Shoelaces were confiscated, as were make-up mirrors and any other items possibly used to inflict harm upon ourselves. All medications were put under lock and key.

My first night I had a nurse seated by my bed throughout the night to make sure I didn’t suicide. The following morning I was awakened by frightening, deafening pounding from the room next door. Anger management class. The pounding was rubber bats against pillowed chair seats.

The following three weeks were a series of classes.

Anger management–I did my fair share of pounding. I found it was very therapeutic.

Art therapy–I used only black pens. Sometimes I slammed the pens so hard the felt tips were ruined, other times were weak little scribbles.

Group Discussions–Patients were seated in a circle and would take turns discussing our feelings. I had long since forgotten how to feel my feelings. I was unable to feel joy, only just learning to feel rage. I had stuffed my feelings. Piled on top of them was a boatload of pain. One man never opened his eyes. I wondered how he navigated the hallways. I have since tried his technique and now understand how it is a brilliant coping skill. One more way to keep the world out: Just don’t see it.

Sing-a-longs led by a jolly guitar playing minister. All the songs were Christian. I remember one, “This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.”

Private counseling– One on one with very gentle psychologists.

The patients included a long distance truck driver, John, who blamed himself for his son’s death. John had given his son a new car. Days later his son was killed in that car trying to beat a train.

Laura, who was committed for a mandatory three days. She had attempted suicide following an affair with her boss. The man rejected her. Her Jehovah’s witness family shunned her.

Doris, who had run away from an abusive home at thirteen. By fifteen she had given birth to a baby who died shortly after that. She was anger personified, often skipping classes or, if she did come, she flounced into the room with a scowl and contributed nothing.

One woman, whose name I have long since forgotten, had to spend her first night in a padded room. Her hands were bound so she couldn’t scratch herself. A camera on the wall recorded every movement to a television posted at the nurse’s station.

She was suicidal over the loss of her teenage son. Each visiting day her husband and pre teen daughter would come. Dad would spend time with his wife while the daughter would sit, stricken and alone, in the visitor’s area. My heart broke for that young girl. She must have felt she alone wasn’t a loveable enough child to make her parents happy.

For years I experienced intense shame about having been in a mental health hospital. It was embarrassing to have become crazy.

Now I’m coming to the “this is good because….” part of my clinical depression journey.

The mental health hospital I was committed to offered two treatment options. One option looked to me like a nut-hut crazy madhouse. The other choice a spiritual Christian model. I now understand my nightmare hospital experience was the first step in my journey to belief in a higher power.

That three-week experience–two weeks inpatient, one week out—was a turning point in my life. Sure, there were still miles and miles to go before I learned to trust my higher power and live the life I now have–A life filled with abundance beyond anything I could have believed possible back in 1993.

There were years of therapy following my hospitalization. Robin, my skilled psychologist, gently guided. She taught me assertiveness skills and how to recognize my feelings. She told me to close my eyes and imagine situations from several sides. Following each assessment, I was to take stock of my physical self. Were my shoulders tight? Was my breathing shallow? My body’s tension or lack thereof would give me answers my mind couldn’t manage.

Eventually, I made the most important wellness choice–leaving my twenty-eight-year marriage. Which led me back to church, back to prayer and back to simply breathing in and out. I learned to be quiet. I learned to trust that God put me here for a reason. I don’t know the reason. I don’t have to. I just have to say, “Hey God, put a neon light over the door you want me to walk through.”

And God always does.