I’d just graduated and there I was in what was called “a mental hospital” starting my internship. My very first “patient” was Don. I was prepared for the encounter by reading his file. He’d suffered traumatic injuries from a motorbike accident some years earlier and while his body had healed, his mind was drastically changed. He used to work as an executive in a multinational but now, here he was, fixated in the story of “what had happened”, re-telling it again and again. It was the only story he ever told. The moments before his Harley hit a tree, what he was wearing and whose fault it was were repeated again and again and again.
His family got sick of the story and so one day, Don found himself in a situation where his wife and children left him – they couldn’t stand the same old story anymore. No-one else could handle the stories either and once his friends had deserted him, the only family that would have him was “the mental hospital”.
Don was chemically controlled with a cocktail of pharmaceuticals and would line up three times a day with a little plastic cup to collect his pills and then to be watched while he took his meds by a nurse.
I sat with him a number of times and he always told the same story, wild-eyed and re-traumatising himself whenever he told it. I tried to change the topic but all words led back to the story of the crash and the trauma.
I had zero power as a new graduate and was the lowest of the low in terms of the hierarchy. All I could do was to listen, try unsuccessfully to move the story into another area and make notes in the patient file. Just following orders like others before me. I left frustrated a few months later and Don was still telling the same story.
Years later, I was told by a Zen master that thoughts work like rain falling onto a mountain; the water droplets collect and then start to move down, rivulets and streams form cutting deeply into the rock becoming the only way for water to escape the mountain. On hearing this, I was reminded about Don’s stories and wondered whether his mind hadn’t become as the weathered mountain with the story eventually classifying him as “mentally ill” and fit to be an inpatient in a “mental hospital”.
I have come to realise over the years that Don’s real problem; the stories he told and thought about were his suffering, that inability move into a new story and leave the not-so-helpful story behind WAS Don’s ‘mental illness’. I hope Don changed his story.