Saturday, December 21, 2013

Tales from the schizophrenia ward - Part II: Irene

Irene - not her real name. Out of all the people I met in the schizophrenia ward, this is the one who left the most lasting impression. Until I met her, I believed that chemotherapy was the worst torture patients were subjected to and which doctors derive their sadistic pleasure from under the guise of "treatment", but this encounter proved to me once and for all that the mentally ill truly are at the very bottom of the receiving end of our modern "healthcare" system.

Like so many in this clinic, this story first began to unfold in the smoker's room (mentioned frequently in the first installment of this series.) One day I go to have a smoke, and there she is. A middle-aged women, short, dark brown hair. I didn't notice it at first, but when I think back it was kind of a curious contrast between how precise her side parting was and how well-kept her hair was in general, and how ridiculously badly she was dressed. I'm not judging, it's just something that kind of sticks with you as unusual. Overall she looked no better or worse, for lack of better terms, than any other patient in the ward. Just an average patient at first sight, not worth noting.

Then she began to "talk." You couldn't understand a word she was "saying", it was literally just moaning. Over time, that being many weeks, I began to be able to work out that at least she was trying to talk, that it wasn't just moaning, and at times you could almost get a general idea of what she was trying to express, just barely. But at first, it was just moaning to me, just random noises she made for whatever reason. So obviously at first I thought she was not simply mentally ill, I was under the impression that she was severely mentally disabled. Think Down's syndrome. I felt like she had the intellect of a slice of toast and had no idea what she was doing in this place. I admit that is a snap judgement to make, but remember I was not exactly at 100% myself and was creeped out by the ward and its inhabitants in general, and didn't give people much of a chance at first.

So yeah, I thought she was a retard, it's not without shame I admit that. But weeks passed, and as both she and I were nearly always in the little smoker's room filling our lungs with tar and other poisons, and I began to notice more and more little things that just didn't seem to fit into my initial snap judgement of her as being mentally disabled.

It was quickly apparent that she was obsessed with the cleanliness of the room, and not just that, but with everything being in perfect order. Most of the times you met her in the room, she'd be bent over sweeping the floor with a hand brush, and when she was sitting to have a smoke, she'd clean the table. At first she rubbed off the ash spots with spit, and we had to explain to her how gross that was, and she'd understand and comment (with a moan), but she would not rest until the table was clean, so we had to make sure there was always a wet cloth around so she could keep everything squeaky clean. And it didn't end there. The chairs had to be perfectly parallel, and the legs of the table had to face particular directions, the ashtray needed to be exactly in the middle and the little aluminum box for cigarette butts had to be in just the right place. That's not something someone with a slice of toast for a brain is easily capable of, so I began to pay more attention to what she did, how she behaved and tried my best to decipher meaning from her moans. And so did others, and we talked about what we could make out, and pieced it together.

It took a few weeks of hard work, but we came to the conclusion that Irene was neither "retarded" nor stupid in any way, she actually seemed fairly bright once you were able to get a general idea of what she was trying to communicate. But there was the moaning, a frequent general sense of unresponsiveness and other things, such as the time when she little her cigarette at the filter end, we told her, she looked at it, then kept smoking the filter. Or how she kept falling asleep during group sessions. Something was clearly not right, and we all started to worry a bit, especially a young woman who was a fellow patient who had worked as a nurse prior to her illness. So we tried to talk to the doctors, we tried to talk to the nurses, we tried to get it across that we were worried. There was no response on the subject from any of the staff, every time we brought it up it was quickly and quite rudely brushed off.

Then we found out what was happening by chance. As I explained in the first installment in this series, there were set times when medication was handed out, and we all formed a line to get our share. One day one of our clique of sorts (a small group of people who got along and hung out) just happened to be behind Irene in the line, and got a first hand view of what she got. No less than SIXTY milligrams of haloperidol and SIX milligrams of lorazepam. This was a very small, slim woman, mind you. Haloperidol, an early and notoriously potent antipsychotic, is usually given at dosages between 5-10mg, once you go a little higher you end up turning into a drooling zombie, but with Irene they did not go a LITTLE higher, they went a LOT higher. And if that wasn't enough, there was the lorazepam, a sedative of the benzodiazepine class usually given at dosages between 1-2mg to treat acute phases of anxiety and/or agitation. Here she got a dosage that was far too high for a person her size, and she got it daily, and she got it on top of a huge dosage of haloperidol. You want to try that on yourself and see how well you do at pronouncing intelligible words or staying awake during group sessions or noticing you lit your cigarette on the wrong end?

Words cannot describe how sick and perverted this treatment of a human being is. And we were not the only ones to be outraged. Her husband visited her frequently, and he was furious. He told off every member of the staff, not only the nurses who we all realised were just clueless drones who were "just following orders", but he made every effort to request meetings with the doctors in charge to literally yell at them. Just imagine someone did that to your wife. The woman you love and care for and promised to spend the rest of your life with.  I think "furious" does not nearly do justice to the feelings he expressed. The reaction? None. In fact, after a while, not willing to put any effort into improving the situation, the doctors sent her home with her medication unchanged. Perhaps they felt satisfied that they did as much damage as they could, but I'm probably assuming too malicious motives, but it sure felt that way. Most likely they simply didn't give a damn.

What ever became of Irene I do not know. I hope she is doing well, and I hope her husband pushed through a significant reduction in her medication. I hope she never has to experience something like the months she spent in the schizophrenia ward ever again in her life. I wish her well, and I will remember her as a kind and intelligent woman who met the wrong people who were abusing in the worst possible ways to get off on their power trips. I'm sure she is not the only one who suffered such a fate in such a place, I reckon there is an Irene in every clinic in the "civilised" world.

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