The Black Tunnel

-Strange – 6 Pages –

I pulled my blankets off in slow motion. My knees all but buckled under me as I put one foot and then the other on the floor beneath me. I dragged myself to the shower, trying without success to turn the spigot. I barely managed to put tooth paste on my tooth brush. My clothes closet loomed in front of me, one big blur. I felt like I was sinking into a deep black tunnel. I had been gradually descending into this abyss for days, but I wanted to pretend it wasn’t happening. One hanger after another was thrown on the floor or bed. What skirt matched what blouse? What dress went with what shoes? Anger rose up inside me. The greater the anger, the harder the clothes landed on the floor. “What had I done to deserve this?”

“Why me?”

“…my job meant everything to me.”

As I threw the discarded clothes on the floor or bed my husband picked them up, putting them all back in the closet. He begged me to stop. “You have to stay home,” he said. “There is no way you can function at work today… For my sake, stay home. I’ll stay with you. Please…” He didn’t get it. Mental health professionals couldn’t show their own weakness. We aren’t supposed to have a mental illness. Thirteen years before, I had been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. But in the throes of my irrational thinking that morning, I had decided my job depended on my
appearance at work. I thought if I didn’t show up my supervisor would discover my secret, and fire me.

My job meant everything to me. I’d decided to change professions after many years, gone to college and received a Masters in Social Work. Now I was in the last year of my training, my final field placement before graduating. In my mind, my whole career was on the line. I was afraid I would lose my identity as a professional. I felt every bit of energy trickle through my body and out my toes. I wanted to be sensible: return to bed, survive the day. But thirteen years after my original diagnosis, the paralyzing fear that my secret would be discovered was greater than all the good sense I had that day. I imagined my coworkers, when I returned to work, pointing fingers at me, saying, “She couldn’t come to work because she is one of them.” I probably should have been more afraid that my illness would be obvious to my colleagues. But I was not thinking rationally. I would go to work. They wouldn’t know.

Without a word to my hysterical spouse, I shuffled outside, one foot at a time, dragging myself to the car, opening the door and thinking that my husband was right. As I placed my hands on the wheel I was gripped with fear. What if I got into a car accident? Or I couldn’t concentrate enough to find my way? I sat for what seemed like hours without turning the key. I cried. I wanted to feel my husband’s arms around me. But the fear of being found out was still greater than rational thought. I turned the ignition and put my foot on the gas pedal. It’s still hard to know why I acted as I did. Perhaps I was trying to prove to myself I could get away with it. But I realize now that if I saw someone in my condition walking down the halls, I would know immediately that something was wrong. It was irrational of me to think I could hide my problem.

I started driving to work. I felt like someone else was in control. Soon my destination was in front of me. My legs carried me from the car to the elevator in the facility. The elevator lifted me to the third floor, the doors opened wide, my heart pounded, and my eyes filled again. I wanted to die.

It’s not too late to turn around and go home, I told myself. But my legs started on their own. I found myself walking to the psychiatric ward where I was expected to be a stable, collected, clinical social worker.

“The gray halls became longer, fuzzier.”

With eyes lowered and a softly mumbled, “Good morning,” I began the day. I pulled myself down the gray halls. Voices came to me from a distance. I heard a patient say, “Hi, can we talk?” Nodding, I automatically answered, “In a little while.” I heard an authoritative voice saying someone named John was being discharged the next day. I heard orders to refer him for community resources, and to provide the family with a list of possible signs of suicidal ideation…

But would I myself live long enough to complete the task? I didn’t want to. I kept thinking, “Why bother living. After all, soon my secret will be out and ruin my life.” Even with all my training, I’m not sure what kept me alive that day. Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my unconscious a voice was whispering,

“Keep breathing and remember your loved ones.”

A fellow social worker approached. “What’s wrong with you?” she said. “Your mood and affect is worse than the patients.” I was taken back by the comment. Had I been a patient on the unit I would have been asked “How are you feeling? You look rather anxious and sad. Why don’t we talk for a while?” That’s what and how the patients would have been asked, with sympathy and understanding. But a social worker is not allowed to get sick. I was scared and angry at them and myself. They felt I had no right to act like I did, I thought. The gray halls became longer, fuzzier.

It’s strange now to remember that the patients were coming to me with their problems. Because, on that day, I needed help too. Many questioned the sadness on my face. I was surprised to find myself feeling closer to the patients than the staff, and even found them to be more compassionate.

They recognized the symptoms.

My terrible secret was out, I thought. I needed to escape from the unit. I ran to the cafeteria, going off into a corner to be rid of questions. How was I going to make it until 5:00 p.m.? Did I want to make it? Yes, I thought.

My career was on the line.

After lunch, my supervisor called and requested to see me in her office. Pushing the button for the elevator, I held my breath. This was the end. I could feel it. I entered my supervisor’s cold office. I faced a tall woman with a cold stare. I didn’t know if I’d walk out of there with my job intact, but I was oddly relieved she was about to find out. I just hoped she’d understand.

Without a hint of concern for me, her student, she said: “Staff on the unit have complained about your performance and lack of competency today.

They don’t understand your change in behavior and are feeling extremely uncomfortable around you.” She then spoke the words that fulfilled my worst possible fear. “The nursing staff has told me that you are looking and sounding like the patients, and have been for the past week.” My world came tumbling down.

“Maybe there was still hope.”

I knew I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I decided to drop the bomb and confide my secret. My supervisor trained social work students to be empathetic, respectful and understanding. She had to understand that mental illness was not a crime. Maybe there was still hope. How could she not care about one of her own? I felt cold, like the temperature in the room was plummeting.

Why couldn’t I get warm? I told my supervisor everything. The bombe xploded in my face. “Go home and call your doctor,” she said. She was openly hostile, I thought. Of course, I knew enough from all my training that my judgment might be impaired; I might not be reacting to my supervisor but, rather, to my own despair. Was her aggression real? And yet, even through the black clouds, I could sense her anger. Yes, she was hostile. It was so palpable that day that I knew it wasn’t a figment of my imagination.

I shuffled out, crying. Should I take pills or cut my wrists? That’s what I was thinking. The car was on automatic pilot. Somehow I made it home.

I don’t remember who called the doctor, me or my husband. It would have been so easy to take my life. To live was harder. Suddenly, I found myself in the hospital, a patient, not a clinical social worker. I’d been placed in a hospital before, but I was an undergraduate at the time and hadn’t yet worked with patients. This was my first hospital stay as a professional. It was humiliating and I tried to let everyone know I wasn’t really a patient. I just needed my medicine adjusted, I told them. I knew as much as they did! But they still treated me badly. They were condescending.

The experience changed me. I was able to think, “this is how my patients are being treated.” I’d never really understood that before. I learned to question myself. Was I being as condescending as the hospital staff? Did I ever treat my patients as badly as the staff was treating me? After that troubling week in the hospital, listening to staff members jingle their keys ready to lock a door at any moment, I was discharged. My medication had been adjusted and I felt stable. It was time to return to work. I wondered, “Could the social worker and the patient ever become one?”

“It was almost a relief that my secret was out…”

The drive to work was pleasant; the sun was bright and shining. The grass and trees were green and the flowers were beginning to bloom. Why couldn’t I see those things before? I walked leisurely to work. I felt lighter. It was almost a relief that my secret was out, at least in part. My supervisor and school liaison knew, but no one else did. I decided my first stop that morning would be to greet my supervisor. A few patients waved and smiled as I headed toward the elevator. That was a good sign. Perhaps I hadn’t lost the trust of the patients and staff. Nonetheless, I was overcome with shame. Did they know I had Bipolar Disorder and where I’d been this past week? As I walked out of the elevator and neared my supervisor’s door I was overcome with that paralyzing fear again. My throat began to close.

My supervisor asked me in and beckoned me to a chair. She said, “If I had known you had Bipolar Disorder I never would have accepted you as my student for the year. Don’t ever take a job in a psychiatric hospital. It is not the place for you.” For the second time, I left her office with a sinking heart and took the elevator up to the unit as I had done the week before. I was deep in thought, contemplating my supervisor’s words. Maybe she was right. Maybe having Bipolar Disorder did eliminate me as a psychotherapist.

My patients welcomed me back and I didn’t sense that they knew. My day was exhilarating. The halls were brighter. I saw how the patients were treated through different eyes than I had one week before; the distinction, within myself, between social worker and patient was gone. I realized that I was not only a good clinician, but I had the advantage of wearing two hats: patient and professional. “Empathy” and “respect” are important words which are often spoken in mental health settings. But they should be reflected in actions, too.

I knew my supervisor was wrong. This was exactly the right place for me. And yet, even many years later, I continue to live in constant fear of being found out. On rare occasions, I have confided in a colleague. But I am guarded.

Most colleagues would react as my supervisor did ten years ago, I fear. The professional and patient in me are one most of the time. Years can race by without an episode. When they do recur, I find myself wondering if this will be the time that I won’t be able to pull myself out of that black tunnel. And yet, sometimes I feel I am lucky to have my illness. It has made me a stronger person and provided me with courage and insight I would have never possessed. When a patient tells me they are feeling suicidal I can honestly say: “I know how much pain you must be in to want to die.

John Faucett

John Faucett is an American writer from Connecticut. His work has previously appeared in magazines, books, newspapers and online journals. Publications: Along the Road Travelled (ISBN 1859291260), Snapshots of The Mind (ISBN 1859291317). His work has appeared in many publications including Skyline Magazine (http: //www.skylinemagazines.com), and The O, Magazine (http: //www.oprah.com/omagazine/omag_landing.html).

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