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Plight of mentally ill patient provides few solutions

I thought rubber rooms were a figure of speech until they put my friend in one last week.

I'll call her Susan. On Tuesday morning she phoned from across town and said-in a halting monotone-that she needed help. There began a painful odyssey that left our circle of friends exhausted, saddened and unsure of our motives. Ironically, I don't know Susan very well. I didn't know, for instance, that her doctors for years had tried a rickety balancing act with anti-depressants. I didn't know she'd recently lost custody of her daughter, that her illness had already burned through many of the ropes that bound her to friends and family.

I didn't even know that she lived alone with a lovebird who bites, much less that the emergency room at Duke North has two rubber cells with electronic locks. When I drove up to her house, Susan was sitting at the window watching the road. I tried to question her while she wandered from room to room, repeating bits of whatever I'd said. The yellow pages were open on her kitchen counter to "Hospitals."

I called the clinic listed on her prescriptions: They weren't allowed to talk to me without her permission. We went anyway. Outside, the air smelled like snow. Inside, Susan's doctor said she needed to be hospitalized-voluntarily or otherwise. She bridled. Even when you go willingly, you sign a form allowing them to hold you three days beyond the point where you believe you're ready to go home.

There was talk of police and handcuffs. Instead, I brought her to the Duke emergency room myself. I left her there for a few minutes, and when I returned they had locked her in the rubber room where she was screaming and pounding on the window. Everyone ignored her. It was about 1:30.

I got the guard to open the door so I could go in and sit with her, and Susan calmed down right away. She noticed I was crying. We sat there a long time. Eventually they found her a bed on the locked "Three East" ward, where Susan told them she was 15 (she's 47) and the staff helped her catalog the contents of her wallet.

"I don't want to do this. I'm ready to go home now," she said, and turned her face to the wall. I went home, spent and uncertain, a little after 5:00. When I went back to visit later in the week, she was more fluent. "I never asked you to bring me to the hospital. You're lying about what happened Tuesday. And you're lying about my bird being fed, too. No one's feeding him, and you know it. Give me back my housekey."

I gave her the key, having already made a copy. By Friday Susan felt confident enough to petition for release. When she got home, what would she do? Feed the bird, certainly. And then?

Another friend, Beth, told us once about snorkeling off the coast of Java, where the reef bloomed with plants and fish and coral. But as she swam, the reef suddenly dropped out from under her, and she found herself peering down into a bottomless black ocean through which huge shapes moved slowly far below, dark on dark.

Terrified, she beat it for shore. But the next day, Beth returned to hover again, her body over the reef, her face just over the edge, staring and wondering. Compassion, too, has a way of drawing us toward the things we most fear. Who would have thought the face of mental illness would look so startlingly familiar, so like one's own? Yet so unfathomable.

It's an experience that ought to be digested slowly, though Susan lacks such leisure. While I exercise the tourist's privilege of gazing from above, she has descended among the dark shapes.

As I write, she is home again and sliding slowly back into her private hell. Tonight she admitted that she senses people using radio waves to send each other messages about her.

I am not a courageous person. I will do my best to help, but Susan has gone where I can't follow even if I would. I will have to get to know her, and come to love her, for now, from a little distance.

Wish us both luck.

Paul Baerman, Fuqua '90, is a former University employee.

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