Tuesday, July 16, 2013

No. 324 – Song for Our Ancestors

Performer: The Steve Miller Band
Songwriter: Steve Miller
Original Release: Sailor
Year: 1968
Definitive Version: King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents the Steve Miller Band, 2002

It didn’t take long for the doctors at Evanston Northwestern Hospital to figure out what was wrong with Laurie in May 2008. In retrospect, it would seem the diagnosis was simple: Laurie suffered a manic episode as a result of a previously undiagnosed bipolar condition.

The difficult part was what to do about it. We had two choices: The first was heavy-duty medications. The second was ECT—electroconvulsive therapy.

They started Laurie on meds. Zyprexa was the first one out of the box along with Atavan. Dr. Anderson was a strong advocate of ECT; she said it typically produced quick results with conditions like Laurie’s. But let’s face it: It’s ECT. It’s a serious thing, even if it bears little resemblance to what we all saw in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I might have been brought into the information loop, but I wasn’t part of the decision-making loop. Dr. Anderson thought Laurie was competent enough to make her own decisions and that Laurie’s aunt, who is a retired nurse who was coming to Chicago the week after John left, would be able to assist in the process.

When Ann arrived, she was at the hospital most of the day, with Laurie, meeting with Dr. Anderson. They talked about it and watched a video about the ECT process. At the end, they decided—Laurie and Ann—not to do it, at least for now.

I was OK with that decision. Even though I didn’t believe that Laurie WAS competent enough to make a fully rational decision, I believed that if she had been, she would have said no to ECT.

So the medication program began in earnest. I adjusted my schedule to better fit visiting hours, and before long I had a new routine. I’d go to work in the morning as normal, then I’d stay for an extra hour and a half at the end of the day.

A lot of the time I’d stay that long anyway to keep on top of workflow. Other times, I’d just eat dinner—essentially killing time waiting for the proper train that when I got off, I’d have enough time to drive to the hospital, park and make the long trek through it to the psychiatric ward, arriving just as visiting hours began.

I didn’t see the value in going home for a half-hour before leaving. Home didn’t provide much solace without Laurie, so the less time spent there, the better.

Although the meds route seemed like a safer method of treatment, the big drawback was that it wouldn’t lead to a quick reawakening like ECT might. We just had to wait it out, and many days it seemed as though no progress was made. The days started to pile up.

After Laurie’s brother, John, left, Laurie really burrowed within herself, almost never leaving her room, sometimes not getting out of bed, eating little of her meals, not changing out of her robe, not connecting much with visitors. (And the visitors came on a regular basis each day, much to my resigned chagrin.)

For example, the first week she was in the hospital, Laurie got a stuffed cat as a gift from Heidi’s daughter, who thought Laurie might want it for comfort. Every once in a  while, Laurie would hold the toy and pet it. But after John left, it was put on the counter by the window and didn’t move again for the duration. I didn’t know whether Laurie didn’t want it or just forgot about it.

I mentioned there were two sets of visiting hours on the weekends. I went to every one, and sometimes on Saturday, I’d stay the whole time between. Typically, I’d have to leave at 4, but after I became a familiar sight. We’d be shut in Laurie’s room, so the staff didn’t bother with kicking me out. I’d stay through the next visiting hours. Dinner? I’d worry about that when they DID kick me out, after 8:30.

I wanted to be there as a long as possible for Laurie, to give her some sort of buoy in reality she could grab onto. I suppose to a certain extent, I also did this for myself. As I mentioned, when I was at the hospital and with Laurie, I felt OK, as though I were doing something positive. Let’s face it, most of any benefit probably was to bolster my own mental state, which was very fragile.

One particularly long Saturday, when Laurie stayed in bed almost the whole time and enjoyed only fitful sleep, I sang to her to try and comfort her and anchor her. I sang three of her favorite songs—Fields of Gold by Sting, Wild Mountain Honey by Steve Miller and Guinnevere by CSN. Laurie never opened her eyes but smiled wanly and made little yummy noises.

That was a bad day, but the worst part, by far, was when the period of false hopes began.

Evanston Northwestern had been running a series of fire drills for a period of a week or so throughout the building. I’d oftentimes hear an alarm sound shortly after I arrived and took my serpentine route. Why they timed these drills to the beginning of visiting hours at 7 is anyone’s guess, but they did.

Well, on this one particular Thursday in late May, I arrived just as the fire alarm went off, so the staff ushered me into the little waiting room at the end of the ward by the nurses station to wait out the drill. As I stood there, I saw something startling—Laurie, fully dressed, in the community room. Before then, she had never been in the community room, and it had been a week if not longer that I had seen her out of her hospital gown.

When the drill was over, I went to her tentatively and asked whether she was OK. Laurie responded with  a question that was both sad in subject but wonderful in context: “Are you with someone else now?” That she asked it meant she had recognition of what was happening and the time that had passed. This was the most self-aware I had seen Laurie since she had been in the hospital.

Was she back? I began speaking with her, really for the first time in more than two weeks. I was calm but my excitement bubbled up below the surface.

Janet was on the visiting schedule that night, and she was just as surprised as I was when she arrived and saw Laurie in the state she was in. Over the course of an hour and a half, we had the best visit by far since Laurie had been admitted.

Laurie said a few things that made no sense, but she said way more that did, as in asking what was going on with her work and her acting and what had caused all of this to happen. She didn’t understand what had happened—none of us did, really—but she understood why she was where she was, and she was glad to see us.

The 90 minutes flew by, and by the end of the visit—when neither Janet nor I wanted to leave—we were ecstatic. Janet and I went to a new Italian restaurant in Lincoln Square to celebrate. It seemed a corner had been turned. We were on the right path.

It turns out that path led right into a brick wall. The next day Laurie was more or less back to the normalcy of the previous weeks—not dressed, saying little to nothing to anyone, confining herself to her room. The day after that was more of the same.

It was a spirit-deflating setback to be sure. It was like the good day was a mirage, yet it repeated itself early the next week, only with the same results the next day. I enjoyed the moment for what it was, but I knew it would be fleeting. I then realized that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix.

I stiffened my upper lip and doubled down on the challenge ahead. Fine. I’ll wait this out. I was in this for the long haul.

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