What The Mentally Ill Taught Me About Kindness
In early June, 2011, Maria, a petite young Hispanic woman, sat on a sofa near the nursing station of a high security psychiatric unit in Phoenix, Arizona. She spent most days in that spot, in a drugged stupor, alone and speaking to no one. I could feel the pain beneath her expressionless mask, and that pain was a magnet to me.
Before long, I sat next to her motionless form, and attempted to strike up a conversation. “Hi, I’m Ken. Are you okay?” She turned slowly and looked at me, or perhaps, I should say through me. I had a sense that in her drugged state, I appeared to be a mirage.
“I hate this place,” she replied after much thought. Our conversation proceeded at a snail’s pace from there, but somehow, during the course of it, I convinced her to cut back on her medication, believing that she’d be better off.
Maria followed my advice and cut her dose in half. Within days, she was a different person. She spoke normally, and I learned that she was a single mother of two small children who had recently been taken from her by her ex-husband because she’d been acting strangely, and that she worked as an equipment operator at an electronics company.
Thinking that some fresh air would bring her around even more, I invited her to go outside with me to the recreation area, a large, mostly grass area on the southwest side of the building which was home to two giant mesquite trees, perhaps a dozen smaller trees, a basketball court with a single backboard, and several shade structures. Unfortunately, she wore only hospital socks, and patients were not allowed outside without shoes.
I asked a nurse if there were shoes available for the patients, and discovered that there was an entire closet full of brand new ones. The nurse found Maria a pair that fit perfectly. A short time later, I accompanied Maria to the recreation area.
When we stepped through the last security door into the sunshine and fresh air, her whole demeanor brightened, and I noticed for the first time that when she smiled, she had the most adorable dimples. I walked with her for a time in the grass bordering the perimeter. Despite the harsh reality of the black vertical bars of a fence a few feet from us securing the grounds, there was a palpable sense of freedom.
Maria had violated doctor’s orders by cutting back her medication, and was forced by court order to comply with the doctor’s treatment plan. Within days, she was nearly catatonic again. But I didn’t give up on her—I sat with her once more and comforted her.
During the early morning hours, I’d often see Grace, a toothless, gray-haired, elderly woman, sleeping on a sofa in the main area. When I asked her why she wasn’t in her bed she replied: “That bed kills my old back!”
The beds in that place consisted of a two-inch-thick, vinyl-covered slab of foam on a rigid frame. I spoke to a psychiatric aid about Grace’s situation. A short time later, a mattress pad arrived, and was placed atop Grace’s mattress. I never saw her sleep on the sofa again.
I spent a good deal of time with Grace. I sat beside her and repeated Bingo calls loudly enough so that she could hear to play Bingo. I wheeled her in a wheelchair to her favorite shady spot under one of the mesquite trees in the recreation area because she had edema so bad that she couldn’t walk. Whenever she was sad, I’d make her smile in no time by commenting on how beautiful she looked, pretending that she was my girlfriend, or as a last resort, telling one of my notoriously bad jokes.
I managed to find other patients to help, too. I explained legal papers to a young woman in preparation for a court hearing, fetched apple juice boxes and Graham crackers for a bedridden man, and summoned a nurse when he needed to relieve himself. I engaged loners in sports activities in the recreation area so they’d know that they weren’t alone, and I took new patients under my wing to lessen their anxiety.
Patients weren’t the only ones in need of help. Psychiatric assistants frequently burned out, and psychiatrists were overloaded. I witnessed a nurse leading a support group choke back tears because of a patient’s merciless heckling.
I befriended a recreational therapist with a monthly budget of $40 for crafts and sports equipment for nearly a hundred patients. She’d planted two lovely flower gardens for patients under the giant mesquite trees, paying for most of the flowers herself, but there was no watering system, and they had to be watered by hand every day. Most mornings, I could be found by her side, watering, pruning or replanting.
You might wonder if I was a dedicated employee, or perhaps a caring volunteer, but I was neither—I was a patient. Because of a reaction to surgery and medications, I was involuntarily committed to that high security psychiatric unit for several weeks. I was manic and considered dangerous and acutely disabled.
Sometimes it takes a vacation from reality to open our eyes. At such times, when there is nothing to do, we might notice new opportunities. When we are surrounded by pain, we might find that we can’t help but ease it. When someone is friendless, we might become their friend.
I don’t look back at that period of my life with regret; instead I look back upon it as a time of awakening.
After my recovery and release from that facility, I couldn’t forget the suffering and frustration that I’d witnessed. I wanted to do something but, as a former patient, I feared that I’d encounter nothing but red tape and that, if I donated money, it would go to all the wrong places. It took nearly three years for me to do so, but I finally found a solution.
On March 15th, 2014 just after sunset, I returned to that facility with my wife and two friends. I hadn’t been back there since my release on June 15th, 2011 and it made me uneasy to revisit the prison-like umber building with its soulless tinted windows. Despite my good intentions, I was eager to depart as quickly as possible.
I drove past the main building, turned into the parking area on the west side of the property, parked my van next to the recreation area, and opened the rear lift gate. The four of us then removed a number of gifts for the patients and the recreational therapy department: basketballs, soccer balls, Nerf footballs, coloring chalk, and bean bags—all brand new and of the brightest, most cheerful color schemes I could find. Those gifts cost nearly three months of that recreational therapist’s budget.
We unpackaged the balls and gleefully threw them over the fence into the darkened recreation area. Then, I reached through the stark, black bars of the security fence that once incarcerated me, and placed a plastic bag containing the colored chalk and bean bags onto a concrete walkway where they would be seen by staff, but not ruined by the lawn sprinklers.
During my ordeal, I learned that there are opportunities all around us to brighten days or change lives, and that those acts of kindness are not wasted—they feed our souls, and connect us to our fellow humans. Like seeds sewn in a flower garden, each act has the potential of blossoming into something beautiful, and changing more lives than just the ones we touch directly.
I sincerely hope that my acts of kindness made a precious difference to the patients and staff at that facility, and inspired them to spread that kindness to others.
(Photo by Sundaram Ramaswamy)