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Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Family Night

[EDITORIAL ITEM of note: This is the 500th story to be published at The Elder Storytelling Place. Taken as a whole, they give us a remarkably important and salient sense of what it's really like to be old. Thank you to everyone for your stories and to readers who add so much value in the comments.

By Claire Jean

December 24 has always meant spending time with extended family members and friends. We gather this time of year to feast on traditional dishes that have been handed down from previous generations. We muse over old times and update one another on our current situations.

However, this year would be different for my husband and me. We would instead order Chinese take-out for two and spend the evening with strangers. The change of plans was due to a phone call my husband received shortly before I arrived home from work. He informed me that we had been invited to attend a family night meeting at the hospital where my son had been admitted four days previously.

As we began our forty-five-minute drive to the hospital on that cold and rainy night, I couldn’t help but wonder what was planned or how many people would be there. I was also considering whether or not we should have picked up some sort of prepared food. After all, it was Christmas Eve, and, in my family, holidays are all about food.

We talked about what we were wearing. Were we overdressed, underdressed? We decided it was neither. We knew very little about the facility for which we were headed, other than they offered help for my son and those like him.

The hospital I speak of is a behavioral healthcare facility. It treats those who are diagnosed with a mental illness and who are also chemically dependent on drugs other than those prescribed legally. These patients are referred to as DDs (dual diagnoses). Mental illness is not new to us, but illegal drug addiction is new.

We arrived around 6:15PM and were directed to a large sitting area, met by two somber looking guards who questioned our purpose for being there. They instructed us to turn off cell phones and not make calls while in the building.

Soon after, a group of patients, my son included, arrived and they, plus all who had traveled there this night, were led down a long corridor into a conference room.

The presenter of the meeting began her talk by stating that having mentally ill people in a family meant that none of its members lived a normal lifestyle. She said, without the slightest hint of uncertainty, that we are as abnormal as they in the ways in which we conduct our lives in order to accommodate theirs.

I’m convinced that all present were already aware of that bit of information. Surprisingly, hearing someone actually say those words out loud produced a sense of calm in me. I know we, as a family, behave strangely in some situations and now I know that, for us, it is normal when we, on occasion, conduct our lives in ways that appear abnormal.

As I sat there and continued to listen, I started thinking about a meeting with the elementary school psychologist many years ago discussing my son’s abnormal behavior. I remember asking her to define “normal.” She stated that “normal” is what the majority of the people do. We now know what happened to our country as a result of what the majority of the people chose to do four years ago. I don’t know what this tells you, but it tells me that maybe normal isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

Family night on Christmas Eve 2008, was not what we planned or could have imagined. It turned out to be DD patients and family members brought together for a lecture relating to their illness and addiction.

There were no goodies, caroling or merriment - only plastic trees and strung-up snowflake cut-outs. We were where we needed to be. We learned some things and hopefully contributed in some way.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Claire Jean,

Your story made me very sad for you and all of the other people who spent Christmas Eve in this way..

There are so many other days and nights of the year when you all could have met. Why Christmas Eve?

I am so sorry that your son has problems but could you not have visited him privately and shared the Chinese dinner and some family memories with him?

I wonder why the presenter thought it appropriate to have the meeting on a holiday eve.

Judging from the rest of your story and from events you have told us about before, you have spent a great deal of your time and emotions dealing with your son; why did they sort of foist this meeting onto you and your husband and son at such an inappropriate time?

As I said in the beginning it made me very sad for you to read this story.

I hope things are better for your family now..

Thank you Nancy, for your comment.
Many times my husband and I do feel helpless and hopeless, but we are fortunate in that we do have a life. We’re able to participate and enjoy all the things that “normal people” take pleasure in. The tragedy is that these ill people have been robbed of even the simplest pleasures of life.
Strange as it might sound, Christmas Eve this past year turned out to be somewhat peaceful, since we did not have to concern ourselves about our son’s behavior.
We were all in the same boat. No one batted an eye at whatever anyone said or did.
We were given a little time to spend alone with our family member after the meeting which we did.

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