Yesterday, I was standing in line at my psychiatrist’s office and a man, looking very middle-class respectable, walked up to the receptionist, his plaid shirt tucked into neatly pressed khakis. He must be a teacher, I thought, or maybe an insurance salesman. But there was something about him that caught my attention, though I can’t really pin point what it was. Perhaps it was his gait, leaning slightly through the window, with a certain intensity. After speaking briefly with the receptionist, he turned to walk away, but then remained, a distressed look on his closely-shaved face. “I used to have Kaiser insurance, “he nervously explained,” can I use Medi-Cal here now.” I was answering his question in my mind thinking, “Of course not, man!” The receptionist explained that he needed to have a current Kaiser plan in order to receive treatment. She was compassionate and it appeared genuinely wished there was something she could do for the man. “I just need to get some help…because of what’s going on in here,” he said, pointing at his head and moving his finger in a circle. Becoming agitated, he abruptly told the receptionist that he didn’t need an explanation from her, he needed help. Then he walked out of the waiting room.
As I checked in, I noticed in my peripheral vision that he was again in the waiting room, standing nervously beside me. From personal experience, I knew just how desperate he was (There is no deeper insight than empathy). I turned to speak with him, but he disappeared again, and I saw my psychiatrist standing in the doorway waiting for me. The desperate man was gone. I headed into my appointment.
I wanted to run and find the man, to tell him to go check himself in to a psychiatric hospital. I could have given him the address! But having recently survived a near “drowning” of my own, I made my way to the safety of my psychiatrist’s office. We spoke of how I was adjusting to a new medication, plans for returning to work, and other topics that dominated my current life of recovery. And for a time I forgot about the desperate man in the waiting room.
Thirty minutes later, as I was leaving, I passed a small room where patients were held when being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. A security guard stood by the door ensuring that whoever was inside didn’t make a break for it. I peered quickly into the room trying to see if it was the desperate man, but the lights were turned out and the patient was moved out of view. I’ll never know if it was him. Today, the desperate man is in my thoughts and I hope it was he in the dark room under the supervision of medical staff. I pray that at this moment he is recovering in the safety of a hospital.
You’d never know from his general appearance that the man was in the midst of a psychological breakdown. As a matter of fact, he looked impervious to this type of thing. But he was suffering, terribly so, and trying so hard to get help. I imagine he had a family and they didn’t know he was there. I imagine he was ashamed to let his family see his pain, his weakness. As it was early afternoon, he had probably hit his breaking point at work. I imagine him walking out to his car, having given some pretense for leaving work early, sick kids probably the excuse. I imagine him driving aimlessly, and coming to the painful conclusion that he couldn’t do it anymore, that he needed help. I imagine him parking in some empty lot, sitting, sitting, sitting. And then making a decision to reach out. I imagine him coming to the realization that failing to get help at this moment was nothing short of dangerous, terribly dangerous. I imagine him driving, as if in a dream to the Kaiser facility, and hoping that soon he wouldn’t have to keep this awful secret anymore.
How many like this desperate man are out there? He was one of the brave ones, one of the heroes who stare down humiliation and fear and reach out for help, probably for the sake of his family. When people, men and women, don’t go to the doctor for a real illness from fear of becoming a social outcast, we have a major problem, a problem that is catastrophic for so many.
Those who suffer from mental illness are battling two enemies, the “stigma” and the “self.” The “stigma” says that it is not okay to be mentally ill, that in failing to conform to the homogeneity of mental health one has failed in some larger sense. And the “self” says that it’s pointless to try, it’s impossible to get out of the fog, and that revealing one’s illness will lead to humiliation and ruin. In the absence of a family member to take charge, someone in a true crisis will very likely be unable to obtain the help they need. Go to any urban homeless shelter and you’ll see hundreds of examples of just such people.
It is estimated that 26 percent of adult Americans have a diagnosable mental illness, roughly 58 million people. While there are many degrees of mental illness, a significant number of these cases have the potential to be fatal. This is no exaggeration. As with cancer and diabetes there are grave medical consequences when mental illness goes untreated. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2030 depression will be the leading cause of disability and death, more so than cancer or any other disease. So what will be the cost of failing to normalize this ubiquitous illness?
Walking into a hospital with chest pains places one on the fast track into the emergency room. There is no humiliation, no judgment, just concern and care. That the same concern, care, and openness would be offered to those with mental pain is a wanting reality that is long overdue. I know the fear and pain of the desperate man in the Kaiser waiting room. I hope and pray that for he and those who undoubtedly love him, he is in a place of recovery today.
May we all heal in the presence of love and compassion.
~The Bellowing Angels (T.B.A.)