March 23, 2014
Over a decade, in the 1980s and 1990s, I had the joy to work with older people (at 58 years old I am now older than some of the youngest with whom I worked but they oldest were in their 80s) who were writing their life stories in workshop settings at Age & Opportunity Centres, Creative Retirement and at the University of Winnipeg Continuing Education in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The participants’ stories were as varied as the people who attended the workshops were. They developed wonderful bonds with each other as they shared parts of their lives with each other that, in some cases, their longtime neighbours, friends and even family members did not know about. The stories sometimes revealed very private parts of their lives.
More than one of them confided in me that there were some things too personal for them to reveal in the workshops or ultimately to their family members who were often their inspiration in writing their life stories. One of these women allowed me to interview her about a secret side of her life after I told her that I would change her name when writing the article for published. This is it:
May 10, 1989
Some memories of a professional patient
by Tanya Lester
After people have done some living, they often like to get together and talk about life as they once knew it.
Growing up, getting married and raising a family are discussed with pride and sometimes regret. Stories are swapped of work and pleasurable pastimes.
Memories — both happy and tragic — of the war years and of the depression are exchanged. Tears sometimes come easily but so does laughter.
These are the golden years — or so they should be.
Marian (I’ll call her) is no exception when it comes to reminiscing about the good times. Her face lights up as she brings out old photographs of her children after lunch in her downtown Winnipeg apartment.
In her 60s, Marian is an attractive, intelligent woman who continues to educate herself by reading and attending a variety of courses. Formerly a teach, she babysits to supplement her CPP cheques. She is active in seniors’ groups and enjoys the company of her peers.
Yet Marian has memories she hesitates to share with acquaintances and even family members. They are life experiences older people sometimes who rather no discuss. But she realizes someone has to start talking about the unsavory aspects of society if it is ever to get better for future generations.
Marian began her 25 year stint at being what she refers to as a “professional patient” when her children were still young. Feeling very low, she had been dragging herself around for days when she finally got down onto her knees and fervently prayed to God for held. Suddenly, the room appeared to light up. Her energy returned and she was able to once again handle the many chores involved in raising a large family.
Then, Marian believes she made a mistake which changed the course of the next two and a half decades of her life. She told her doctor about her seemingly miraculous experiences. He referred her to a psychiatrist.
For the next 16 years, Marian saw a number of psychiatrists who preferred to hand out pills rather than talk to her about her problems. To say that they men were insensitive to their patients’ needs and to basic human dignity is an understatement.
“Sometimes he’d ( a psychiatrist) even just beckoned me (into her office) with his finger: Papa Freud,” Marian remembered with disgust.
After the appointments every three months (which lasted all of 15 minutes each), to refill her prescription for anti-depressants, Marian would go back to her home in rural Manitoba and begin the long wait until the next one. She always hoped something would happen during the next appointment that might change things for the better. Nothing ever changed. Her life had come to a dead end.
At the same time, Marian was enduring an abusive relationship with her husband. Marian came to believe, based on religious preachings, that suffering was a necessary part of Christian life. “That I must bear (my husband’s abuse) as a martyr,” she said. “It was God polishing up my life (for heaven).”
She felt, on the other hand, if she became a better person, her husband would no longer abuse her. She strived to become this “Jesus person” but always seemed to fall short.
Not surprisingly, Marian continued to reoccurringly sink into depression. Yet even in this aspect of her life, she felt she should be doing better. “I was ashamed of myself that I was giving into this depression,” she said.
During this time, Marian found a pastoral counsellor to whom she could talk openly. He seriously breached his profession’s code of ethics by developing a sexual liason with her. When she eventually realized she could say “no” to a man, Marian stopped seeing him.
Marian finally received her first good piece of counselling after moving into Winnipeg. It came from a psychiatric nurse. “Doctors can’t do it,” the nurse advised. “Pills can’t do it. You have to do it.”
“Then what am I doing here?”, Marian asked herself and, after 25 years, took back control over her own life. She gradually quit taking medication, signed up for university psychology courses and began to do reading on the mental health system. Among the books she found particularly enlightening was Miriam Greenspan’s A New Approach to Women and Therapy.
Today, Marian is happy with her life but has to get by on a modest income due to her interrupted work record. “We cannot get disability pensions; neither can we get jobs,” she wrote in a piece published in the Winnipeg Free Press on June 29, 1986.
“Emploers want to see good work records on our application forms. Most of us have the good sense not to mention mental illness because there definitely is discrimination regarding the mentally ill.”
Marian believes she learned through her experiences but remains angry with the mental health system for failing so dismally to meet her needs and those of many others. However, she is proud of the fact that one of her daughters has chosen a career in psychiatric nursing after witnessing her mother’s treatment. Even tragic memories from the past can help make a better future.
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Confessions of a Tea Leaf Reader by Tanya Lester can be perused and/or purchased by going to the title and author name at http://www.amazon.com
For other articles and stories about them that Tanya wrote over the years you can go to writingsmall.wordpress.com