We had made it out of ICU. My father was approaching his third day post open heart surgery, and they had transferred him to a “regular” room. Not only was this relief in that he was on his way to recovery, but the couch in this room was somewhat larger for me, and the interruptions from the treatment team came less frequently through the night. I was happy.
Up until this point my father had had little interaction with the medical staff being that he was constantly sleeping and on a breathing machine for most of his time in the ICU. Now feeling much better and able to take his medicine via pill form, my father was able to engage with the nurses and doctors in his usual jovial manner.
The first nurse on shift to take care of my dad came bouncing in with a grin ear to ear. She picked up his chart and looked over it once and twice making sure to not miss any important information. “How are we feeling, Mr. Molberg?” she said in a cadence with a hint of former cheerleader. My father smiled and made a joke about not being able to escape with all the monitors attached to different parts of his body.
“Let’s see here, you need this medication for blood pressure, and we need you to continue taking this one for pain, OK?… Also, it seems you take Wellbutrin from your primary care doctor.” She squinted her eyes and curled her mouth while she formed her next sentence. “Wow. You are on an incredibly high dosage. Are you trying to
quit smoking or something?”
I immediately glanced at my father and saw him try and find the words. “I have bipolar disorder” suffocated him and cracked at his teeth like a mouth full of rocks. I wanted to jump in and save him from harm but instead stood there with my mouth gaping open as she shrugged her shoulders and bounced out of the hospital room.
My dad didn’t seem to care too much, but I began to apologize for her profusely. Where was this coming from, and why wasn’t I able to defend or even explain my father’s illness? The shame burned deep within my chest, and I never thought this inconsiderate and poorly trained medical professional would be the one teaching me a lesson in self-acceptance and learning how to talk about one’s own mental illness.
One year after my father’s heart surgery he died by suicide. I lost a piece of myself, and I began to deteriorate. I was fortunate enough to know I needed to seek help with my grief and what had begun to be a daily struggle with depression and anxiety.
Standing in line at the pharmacy with my brand new anti-depressant prescription, I began to hear the innocently judging and misinformed voice of my father’s nurse. I knew I needed to own my mental illness and find the correct language to discuss it in safe spaces with others. I knew I wanted to educate others on the damages of shaming those of us that struggle with mental illnesses.
I am grateful for the distorted view of that nurse because maybe she created a space for me to begin to accept my own mental illness. She gave me a glimpse into the misunderstandings of individuals who do not have any experiences with mental health and stigma that injures the community and allowed for my own compassion to grow. While I lost my father and every single day is a struggle, while even sometimes my slow and gentle breath hurts to my core, this woman’s misunderstanding gave me a greater understanding and gentleness with myself.
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Thinkstock photo by Fabio Balbi