• Carmen Marie Fabio

Stop the stigma

My mother walks excitedly into the room where I'm talking with my boys. Long, dark hair frames her youthful face. She's smiling, happily explaining how a favoured politician has won the recent election in her native Slovakia. She drives off in a station wagon towing a boat....

My mother's short grey hair adorns a fragile face, blue eyes intent but no longer clear. Clothes much too big envelope a frame that clings tentatively to the 100 lb. mark wrapped in a wardrobe that, from an impoverished, post-war upbringing will never reach the standards of what she feels is acceptable to the imagined judgement of her peers.

The station wagon meanders down a steep slope, steadily until it wavers and fishtails before careening into a water-filled ditch. I stare intently. “Ma's in trouble!” I yell to my kids.

When I visit these days, she's not happy to see me. When I phone, she invariably tells me she's not having a good day. She insists she's a bad person, that her lies will be discovered, that she doesn't belong in the residence that has extended the most kindly and understanding care in her current state. She believes her mental illness will destroy me, that the police will arrest me, and that I will suffer for her sins. I despise the concept of guilt - endured or delegated.

“Stop being so Catholic,” I insist even though I know I'll hear her sharp, disapproving intake of breath and, despite her physical state, a stinging admonishment.

I'm running down the hill towards the ditch in which my mom is now in the partially submerged boat. A police officer is tugging on a long rope in an effort to pull the craft out of the dirty, swirling water.

The insidious tendrils of severe depression crept into my mother's life around Easter of this year and held tight with a fierce tenacity. Robbing her of her good nature, sense of humour, and ultimately her appetite until the phone call came from the staff at her seniors' home, imploring me to convince her to allow the ambulance to transport her to the hospital.

In keeping with my mother's ability to do all things in life to the fullest, her depression led to psychosis and a treatment-resistant journey that arrived, not at a cure, but at a state that I refer to as purgatory. The only thing drug therapy would ultimately address was to restore her appetite to the point where she wouldn't die. Her mental state, however, is firmly ensconced in a black cloud.

The police officer hands me the rope and walks away. I see my mother's face pressed up against the window of the boat and I start to pull with minimal effort, easily at first – as easily as I was willing to believe the attending physician that this is a cakewalk and her condition will be rectified as soon as the drugs kick in. Unfortunately, this never really happens. Treatment-resistant depression, I'm told, sometimes happens but I'm assured that Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is highly effective, especially in seniors, with minimal side-effects. Its unfortunate reputation, borne of countless Hollywood misrepresentations, has saddled the treatment with the nasty stain of stigma, of which my mother is more afraid than spending the rest of her days in purgatory, or even in hell.

Though I'm initially successful at pulling the boat from the ditch, I soon lose my grip. The rope slips from my hands and the boat slowly becomes submerged in the murky ditch water. I scream at the police officer to help me but he can't. Without my mother's consent, he explains, he can't force anything on her, even if it's for her own good. I wake from the nightmare with my heart pounding.

October 1 to 7 is Mental Illness Awareness Week in Canada.

Please help to end the stigma of the affliction – and the treatment – by validating the conversation and allowing it to even begin.

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