My Introduction to Mental Illness

holding_handsEarly in my career as a special educator, I faced a particularly challenging situation with a student. Her mental illness foreshadowed things to come. God graciously provided the experience so I would recognize it in my son years later.

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September signaled the time for a new school year to begin. It was my third year of teaching at the school for the blind. I finished typing braille name tags for the desks. I’d meet my new students the next day. The building administrator stopped by my classroom to deliver an important message.

 “One of your students, Kim, is having a psychotic episode,” my supervisor told me.

I searched my memory for the meaning of “psychotic episode.” Pushing aside embarrassed feelings, I admitted my ignorance and asked, “What does that mean?”

Mr. Graham casually said, “Kim’s out of touch with reality.”

His calm tone didn’t match his words. Surely they didn’t match my reaction!

This time I could only ask myself, What does that mean?

I was trying to comprehend it all and still keep my focus on everything that was about to happen in a typical first day of school with multi-handicapped children. Panic started to set in. I bluntly asked, “Can I ask a stupid question? Why is she coming to school?”

“Kim’s parents want her to see the school psychiatrist. He’s not in yet. When he arrives, I’ll let you know.”

Somehow I’d have to deal with Kim until he came in. But, how would I manage her while greeting my other students?

Little did I know, years later I would fully understand what it meant for someone to have a psychotic episode.         But on that day it was all new to me. This was not in my lesson plans.

What am I supposed to do with her? What am I supposed to do with my other very-involved students while dealing with Kim? What am I supposed to tell my aide? 

There wasn’t much time for me to figure it out. I was filled with panic. Emotions consumed me with self-pity.

Why did this have to happen? It’s not fair.        

Like other teachers, I prepared thoroughly for the first day of school. Educators want that day to be very special and run smoothly. I was no exception. I worked hard to ensure a happy and productive start to the school year.         I prayed each student would adjust easily to their fellow classmates, to their aide, and to me.

But, this unexpected news caught me off guard. Like someone just ripped the rug of confidence right out from under me. Just moments before, excitement bubbled inside me. I eagerly anticipated the first day with them. I was looking forward to meeting my adolescent students who were blind and multi-handicapped. Because of the many hours I spent studying their files, I felt I already knew them. Their records outlined academic, physical, emotional, and social limitations. Each one had needs beyond my training. But, I felt up to the task.

Clearly, all my students presented a challenge. Teaching them would be difficult. But, I was well prepared. I planned for a smooth start. Not, however, for one of my students to be out of touch from reality. My fairy tale script for the start of school wasn’t supposed to begin with such a gaping hole.

I needed to learn an important lesson: life isn’t predictable. Things don’t always go as planned.

Some teachers have to teach with limited teaching supplies due to budget restrictions. I’ve even known teachers who had to start a school year without new textbooks. But, I’ve never known anyone who had to teach a student who had no working mind. This wasn’t covered in my college Methods of Teaching course. I realized my need for God’s guidance.

Leaning on the Lord was a new experience for me. Even though I grew up attending church every Sunday, it was all empty religion and tradition. It didn’t become real until I was in college and faced a crisis in my life.         It was then that I realized there was a difference between religion and a relationship with the Lord who cares for me personally. It all became real. Jesus died for my sins and He cares about my life. So, I said a quick prayer and continued my preparations for the first day.

Heavenly Father, give me wisdom to know how to welcome each student tomorrow. Especially Kim.        

Thankfully, all the other students arrived before Kim. Each delivered by their morning daycare workers. My fairy tale script was still intact, for the moment.

Kim arrived last, escorted by Mr. Graham. Her eyes had an empty, lifeless look to them. Not like the given-up-on-life stares I saw in another student’s custodial care institution. There was no hint of expression on her face.         It almost looked like she was asleep with her eyes open. In a daze. Like a live mannequin. Frozen in space and time.

Mr. Graham guided her to a chair. There she sat. Motionless. Catatonic.

“Welcome to class, Kim. I’m Miss Vicki. That’s Miss Sharon. We’ll be your teachers.”

No reaction.

Teaching the lessons proved easier than expected, considering the circumstances. My emotions proved to be the hardest things to manage that morning. I felt tremendous compassion for Kim. Such a strong urge to reach out to her. To connect with her some way. To ease her pain.

A foreign feeling engulfed my heart. Helplessness. That new and unfamiliar emotion would visit me often as a parent. Too often.

After a few hours, the psychiatrist arrived and took Kim away. Later that day, I learned she was in a fetal position. I couldn’t help her. All I could do was pray for her.

God was teaching me how to handle helpless situations. When things seemed out of control, I could turn to Him. Anywhere. Anytime. He was always available. Able to help those I loved.

Kim returned to school in two short weeks.

“I’ve never witnessed such a quick recovery,” the psychiatrist told me. He went on to caution me.

“Kim will experience paranoia. While she wasn’t in touch with reality, life when on. Events happened without her knowledge. She might think everyone is making things up.”

As predicted, Kim appeared quite paranoid, confused, and distrustful.

Since many of the students in the school exhibited unusual behaviors, visitors had to be approved by the public relations director. If approved, the director would inform the staff in advance of a tour. Unfortunately, around that time the director neglected to notify us of a tour. I would have requested the visitors bypass my classroom so as not to upset Kim.

My classroom had a window on each side of the door. I kept my door closed while teaching. Suddenly, without any notice, there were many faces peering into my classroom. Kim had enough vision to see the door. She noticed the faces staring at her and let out a bone-chilling scream. She put her head in her desk. I thought, ‘Serves them right for not notifying us beforehand!

My four years teaching at the school for the blind presented additional problems to solve. Some insurmountable enough to remind me of my inadequacies. Of my need for God’s guidance.

Encounters with students who had emotional problems, mental illness, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
(ADHD) were part of the job. Never did I imagine I’d face similar situations in my home. God, in His loving care and wisdom, knew those experiences would later help me as a parent.

Through those seemingly impossible problems, God showed me His power and love. Verses in the Bible came alive and had new meaning. Upheld promises bolstered my faith in a loving Father. Years later as a parent, I’d claim those same promises.

“Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us…”  (Ephesians 3:20)

 “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:20)  

Thank you, Father for Your constant care when I need guidance.    

How has God prepared you for what you’re facing?

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2 thoughts on “My Introduction to Mental Illness

  1. What a great writer you are, thank you. It sure is nice to be able to share our lives especially professionally, when I am working as a nurse! Thank you so much for taking the courage you have and working to get MI out to to general public. I am amazed that once you speak about MI, how many people have been affected by it, if not personally, than in their family!

    The time is now to speakly publically about it and find the support of others who too may feel, helpless, depressed, and frustrated!

    Thank you

    • Dear KJ,
      Your support means more than you know.
      Yes, it’s amazing how many others are out there coping quietly…all alone. Let’s all speak up and get rid of the shame and stigma!

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