Travelling through Alberta, after a trip to the United States in the summer of 2011, I made a stop in Lethbridge to visit the hospital where my youngest child had been born in 1986 and I had spent that month in 1987 learning the healing that comes when broken people reach out to each other. The hospital had changed with bright new facilities and tall tiered windows. It was hard to imagine, as I sat there, the old chipped tiles and meandering stairways I came to know in that second visit there.
The psych ward was on the third or fourth floor of the old hospital. It was strange to me to think that only a year before I had been a floor below for the birth of my daughter. Now she and her brother and sister were staying with people from the church while I shared a room with a stranger there in that hall of confusion and sadness. Bingo and jigsaw puzzles seemed to be the staple entertainments on the floor but through a locked door, down a winding stairway, through the back of the kitchen and out through a neglected weedy corner led us to the outpatient center where we would participate in group therapy and crafts such as painting ceramics to be fired.
Between activities several of us began to get to know the stories that had brought us here. We even talked of dreams of what we wanted to be in life, and hopes of what we would be able to do when we got out. There was the woman who could not get over the grief from her daughter’s death, those whose homelessness or troubled home situations enhanced their depression. Others struggled with a number of other mental illnesses but what we held in common was the knowledge that for that time, we could not function effectively in our outside worlds. We could interact with the day clients but somehow, our knowledge of being those who couldn’t go home at night kept us together.
Being one of the “inmates” as we would often laughingly call ourselves didn’t come with ready made labels of strength so the woman’s comment caught me by surprise. “When I look at you,” she said to me, “I see an eagle locked in a cage.”
Her words caught something in me stirring it to life. In my most broken someone saw strength, just strength that was trapped and limited by some constrictions. Her observation opened up something inside of me and when we went on walks, I began looking at the sky instead of at the ground. I began to see the world with fresh eyes, hopeful eyes. I began to look at my surroundings and see the details I had once cherished around me.
This renewed way of seeing led me to the next surprise. Crossing through the weedy patch behind the kitchen, a caught a hint of violet in the grass. Going to look I found a small bed of tiny flowers the size of a baby’s tiny fingernail. I gathered a small bouquet of them between my fingers and carried them up to the floor where I dumped out a coffee creamer container to make a tiny vase for them. Filling it with water, I set it on my dresser. Those flowers held more peace to me than any bouquet that had been brought by well-meaning visitors. Others came to see the flowers, this tiny gift from right where we were at.
Linda, another woman and I had reached a place in our treatment where we could get out on a pass for a few hours. Needing to do a bit of necessity shopping we went to a local strip mall. There is something heady in being out of the confinement of the ward without someone watching over us. We were giddy with laughter, cracking the stupidest jokes we could think of. “Watch it,” the third woman quipped, “If we keep this up people are going to think we belong in the looney bin.” Of course this would just crack us up more.
Heady from our outing, we talked about our silly humor over dinner that night playing with the ongoing joke about being inmates.
The woman who lost her daughter cut in on the fun. “No,” she declared firmly looking straight at me. “You can never be an inmate. Anyone who can see flowers where the rest of us only see weeds can never truly be locked up.” Her words calmed something in me, settling hope that I would find a way back home.
When I left my final day, I knew that many of those I met there would be strangers again. We came from different towns, few of us living in Lethbridge. We would be travelling to outpatient sessions once or twice a week from our corners of the province, some, like me, being transferred to other mental health groups and finally to support in my home town because of certain blocks created in getting care for my children while I finished the therapy.
I would begin finding my way back to life again, doing as much as I could, failing to make it without a week’s stay with my children in a shelter and then spending time attending another church where I was not being pressured to lead activities I was not yet mentally able to be in charge of. I would find out that those in my church who had the medical know how to help me when my daughter was having breathing problems had stayed away because I “wasn’t the kind of person” they wanted to be around right then. Depression had become a separator. I would do my pastor’s wife duty of staying in relationship to these people in the way they would accept it but it would be the other pastor’s wife, Merna, who was temporarily back in town from chemo therapy treatments who would continue to encourage my strength by inviting me to get together to sew dolls for our daughters.
She and I attended a women’s conference in Banff, sharing a room since I already knew about her wigs. She bought me a journal as we left to encourage me to always keep letting my words dance. I would get to go to her and sing her favourite praise song in the last days of her life when she no longer had a voice to sing. All those who had walked this journey would leave their mark of hope on my spirit, ready for the times when God needed them there for the story that wasn’t finished in my life.
Poems related to this part of the journey can be found at: