Today is World Mental Health Day, and I thought I would share a story about my work. It’s true, it’s meant to be sad, and it’s meant to be funny too. Because that’s what it was like.
I work with mummies and mummies to be, and I am a mental health nurse. Not a real nurse. A special nurse. A la-la nurse, all tea and sympathy. I say “tea”, you’ve all tasted what we get haven’t you? Whatever that mix of dried fingernails and belly button fluff we’re given to make tea-flavoured drink.
I want to tell you about my day job.
Every year in my city 17,000 babies are born. 17,000 little squidgy bundles of puke and jobbies and chubby happy screaminess. 17,000 lives jolted upside and round in the cyclone of kids. One in five mums – probably way more but that’s another topic – at least one in five mums will have a mental health problem in the perinatal period; so in my city, that’s well over three thousand.
Most get no help. Of those who do, most only see their GP. The ones that are really unwell, they get to see me; a kind of aversion therapy. “Cheer up or we’ll send you to the whiny gobshite, you’ll sit in a sweaty velour armchair while he force-feeds you disappointing biscuits and tea-flavoured drink”. I love my job.
Let me tell you about something that happened; a reason why I do what I do and sometimes wish I didn’t do what I do, and how sometimes those times when I wish I didn’t do what I do make doing what I do even better to do.
Let me tell you about a mummy who wanted to die.
A mummy, and a survivor of a chronic mental illness; my job was to help her understand her head, understand how relapse happens, understand she is not alone, understand that there is hope and a future and love and being wanted and valued, and understand how to talk it through and help her to maybe one day help her baby understand why mummy was a mummy who wanted to die. So I see her every week in the group.
The Group – problem sharing, problem halving, celebrating being a parent and lamenting being a parent, verbalising the relentless, oppressive tsunami of emotions for one mother and naming the null numb nothingness for another, unconditional, compassion-full confessional.
Shed tears proudly, laugh loudly, we get complaints for the noise.
“You all seem to be having a lovely time” said one colleague. “Shouldn’t you be working, ha ha” said another.
I replied, smile-fatigued face flushing with rising rage that yes, indeed I thought I was.
“Really? Doesn’t sound like work…”
You know I have a room full of severe depression, crippling anxiety, dissociation, intrusive thoughts, disturbing dreams, waking nightmares, so suffused with self-doubt to the depths of their bones they haven’t slept in days, aching, scarred, battered and embittered, laden with shame at their supposed shocking shortcomings, grief-stricken, guilt-ridden, partners don’t get it, babies don’t get it, professionals don’t get it, the world all around doesn’t get it because the world all around seems to have it all together and the world all around has so much advice and the world all around has well-meant words but these mums… these mums wish that for one moment of silence that the world all around would just fuck off…
And for one hour, we got them to smile.
You’re damn right I’m working.
One day, the mummy who wanted to die turned up unannounced, tears hanging, trembling, handing me her baby and the rhetoric of relapse “She’ll be safe with you, OK? You’ll keep her safe please? There’s somewhere I have to go. Keep her safe, you promise? OK? OK?”
“Come and have a cup of tea” I suggest and for twenty minutes this to-and-fro happens before she finally concedes to come in. I break out my emergency stash of Yorkshire teabags and look to rally support.
Everyone else is out. The police don’t want to know, the social work neither “’cos she’s one of yours” they say “’cos she’s got mental health” they say.
Just us – two nurses – and a mug of fucking tea.
Free to walk out any moment, drive to a place to silence the torturing thoughts that have held her hostage her whole life. She knows what to do, she knows how to cure her poorly head.
Hours pass, we tiptoe round, tag-team tempting her to stay, to stay alive, to take her meds, talk to her mates, persuade and encourage, homeopathic hints of hope in the petrified pain-shattered shell she inhabits.
And eventually she is admitted.
And eventually she goes home.
And eventually she smiles again.
And eventually, she’s in the last session of The Group.
On her way out, but this time in a good way.
“We need to talk about your discharge plan” I say to the mummy who had wanted to die.
The mood drops, my words hit the kerb, dry voice, eyes trained on toes, affectless words “Yeah but remember that day? That day I wanted to die. I need to talk about that day. There’s something about that day that won’t leave me alone, is stuck in my head and won’t go away OK? OK?”
“Should have seen your face”
A good day.