This article is not going to be about the evils of psychiatric hospitalization or medication. It is about a love story that happened many years ago. It is a story about two people trying to survive in our world and manage within the psychiatric system. It’s a story of two individuals with their own pain and triumphs: Pierre and Shelly.
I met these two when I was a psychiatry resident at a major psychiatric hospital. Pierre had been hospitalized on the ward where I was working, and the treating staff on the ward were called to a meeting to discuss the situation of Pierre and Shelley.
Pierre had been diagnosed years before as being schizophrenic. He met Shelley, who had been diagnosed as being intellectually challenged and as having occasional psychotic episodes, at the hospital about seven years prior to my meeting them. From that time on they had been inseparable. The problem, as seen by hospital administrators, was that Pierre would often stop taking his medication when he was living with Shelley, but when he would be admitted to hospital, he would not stay as he wished to be with her. A similar story was told of Shelley. It was felt that she would be unstable when with Pierre, but would not be without him.
A meeting was called to determine what should be done with them. Hospital administrators wanted the two to be sent to different hospitals, far away from each other, so that there would be less chance of them encouraging each other to flee hospitalization. Most people felt that Pierre and Shelley would be easier to treat if they were no longer a couple.
This plan seemed inhumane to me. I suggested that we hospitalize them together, in the same room, and treat them like a couple. This idea raised many eyebrows, and was met with great concern by ward nursing staff. But with the support of Dr. Dmitri, my supervisor, we managed to convince the administrators to give it a try.
It did not take long for the benefits of the arrangement to be obvious. Nursing staff, who were initially concerned about the couple being a problem and about conjugal sex on the ward, became proponents of the arrangement. Other patients began seeing Shelley and Pierre as parental figures on the ward. It was almost as if the ward was turning more into being a family. Soon, a dog was adopted by the ward, with Shelley and Pierre being the main caretakers.
I saw the two together in weekly couple therapy sessions to discuss any issues that would arise. Prior to meeting Pierre, Shelley had a baby who was taken away from her. Hospital staff had alway been concerned about her getting pregnant. Shelley, Pierre and I talked frequently about Shelley’s child and the pain she felt in having lost it. Shelley was able to talk about her loss, and not wanting to go through that pain again. She asked for a tubal ligation so she wouldn’t get pregnant again. Shelley and Pierre decided that they wanted to get married. Shelly’s family had a place in the country, so a country wedding was planned. A bus was hired, and all the patients on the ward as well as other friends and staff went down to the wedding on a lovely summer’s day.
The story unfortunately did not have the happiest of endings. The plan that had been discussed was that after a time on the ward, Shelley and Pierre were to be given a place in one of the supervised homes that the hospital maintained. This did not happen. The staff at these homes did not agree to take them in, and as I had moved on from the hospital, I was not invited to advocate for them. Instead, they were sent to one of the chronic back wards, where there was little support or positive atmosphere. They left the hospital shortly after, and went back to living together on their own. A couple of years later, their relationship fell apart, and Pierre ended up back on a ward, but without Shelley.
But the love story is not just about Shelley and Pierre. It is also about the palpable love that people felt towards them, and the love that was shared by the other patients on the ward. We cannot help people to survive emotional distress of any kind without some feelings of love. Sometimes, even or perhaps especially, one can find love in the most unusual places.
* * * * *
Of further interest:
Hoffman, Norman D. Conjugal Psychiatric Hospitalization. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry/La Revue Canadienne de Psychiatrie, Vol 29(4), Jun 1984, 344-346.