May 24, 2024
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The Dragon and the Sandstorm: Mental Illness and a New Service to Address It

(Courtesy of St. Mary’s General Hospital) Imagine that you are walking in a garden and a tiny firefly pops right into your mouth and down to your belly. Its gentle glow warms you, makes you feel special. And as it grows, you glow even more. You start to do more than before, better than before, faster, in fact you’re the best you’ve ever been.

Until that warm glow starts to get hot, the firefly’s wings scratch you, making you willing to do anything to stop it. But nothing helps. And then, inexplicably, you are running, running away from yourself, but there’s no escape because what was once a tiny glow has become a fiery dragon that rips straight through you and into the sooty night sky.

You find yourself exhausted in your bed, the bed you haven’t left for days, and realize there is something even greater to fear—the sandstorm of depression. It chases you relentlessly until you finally begin to understand that the sandstorm isn’t outside of you: it is you. And in that terrible space there is nothing, nothing but the sound of sand like pulverized bone and shiny little razors swirling around you. And if you emerge from the storm you won’t even know how you made it. The only thing you know is that you will never be the same.

This paraphrases the deeply personal description of what episodes of extreme mania and depression are like for Varda (name changed). She recently shared her experiences with the 50 counselors of Jewish Family Services of Passaic-Clifton in a Zoom meeting in the hope of giving a new, very internal perspective on this mental illness and how proper care can not only save one life but relieve the crucible of shame and worry for an entire family.

Unlike many stereotypical depictions of mental illness—drug abusers, violent people, or brilliant madmen— Varda is a highly educated, successful career woman with two children and a loving circle of family and friends. She is cultured, elegant and extremely discipled in making sure her illness stays firmly in check.

“I have known Varda for quite some time,” said George Matyjewicz, Ph.D., community liaison at St. Mary’s General Hospital. “We just opened the Psych Medical Care Unit, and she and I were discussing the unit and how it can benefit patients. She then told me details of her condition, using the firefly metaphor, which brought tears to my eyes. I said she should talk about her struggles as it would help others. After a couple of weeks of discussion, she decided that she would talk and we arranged a meeting with JFS.”

St. Mary’s General Hospital, in keeping with its national ranking for health, quality and patient safety, took these issues into consideration when it designed and built the brand-new voluntary 24-bed PMCU. Every detail of the design was meticulously reviewed for patient comfort and safety. The unit needed to be comfortable so that patients don’t feel like they are in prison. There are private, comfortable therapy rooms and family visit rooms, and an amazing team.

Some people look at inpatient psychiatric care as giving up or as something that reflects poorly on the patient and his/her family. But when you’re at the point that nothing else is working, the inpatient unit actually offers a place of rest and solace. A wide range of specialists from geriatric psychiatrists to occupational therapists are there to help, as well as medical professionals if the patient has other illness such as asthma or dementia.

“When St. Mary’s General opened its own voluntary inpatient psych unit, I wanted to do something positive,” said Varda. “Why?” asked Dr. Matyjewicz.“Because I hoped that as someone who has been a psych patient, and is also high-functioning,I might have a chance to help break through the stigma and encourage people to take advantage of this lifesaving service, right here in their own neighborhood. Maybe if I shared my secret to help others, the burden wouldn’t be so heavy—for me or for them.”

Esther East, JFS executive director, summed it up very well when she said to Varda: “We are so moved by your willingness and courage to speak to us. We can see how difficult this is for you and we are privileged to have you share your experience with us.” She then asked for any questions/comments from the group and many staff members related how they were taken aback by Varda’s firefly/sandstorm metaphor. It really got the message across as to how a patient feels.

If you would like to know more about the PMCU or would like Varda as a speaker for your team, contact Dr. Matyjewicz at [email protected]

St. Mary’s General Hospital, nationally recognized and locally preferred, is among the top hospitals in America for health, quality and patient safety. The hospital is a proud member of Prime Healthcare, which has more Patient Safety Excellence Award recipients for five consecutive years (2016-2020) than any other health system in the country. To learn more about St. Mary’s General Hospital visit www.smh-nj.com  or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/StMarysGeneral.

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