Category Archives: mental illness

Learning Lessons From Hettie

“Mare-Ann,  I ‘on’t like ‘at soup.  I ain’ gonna eat it.”

She sat at the table, looking at the homemade beef stew that I had put in front of her like she expected something to crawl out of it.  I walked over to see what was wrong.

“Why not, Hettie?”  I couldn’t see anything amiss.

She shrugged.  “I ‘on’t like it.”

“Why don’t you like it?  What’s wrong with it?”

“It ‘on’t taste good.  I ‘on’t like it.  I ain’ gonna eat it.”

“It hurts my feelings, Hettie, when I make good food for you and you say it isn’t good.”

She was unmoved.  Her lips were in that familiar, straight. intractable line.

“You need to eat it.  It’s good, Hettie!.”  I looked at the soup to see if there were any mushrooms in it, but I hadn’t put any in it, knowing that she wouldn’t eat it if there were mushrooms.  “Look, Hettie!  It has our own beef, our own potatoes, our own carrots.  It is good.  You have to eat it.”

She set her jaw, stubborn, but didn’t say anything.  I finished chopping BL’s identical supper into small pieces, and got her started eating, and continued working in the kitchen, keeping an eye on Hettie’s progress.  She would occasionally pick up her spoon and stir it around, but not a single bite went to her mouth.  She nursed a can of caffeine-free pepsi a little at a time, and when she thought I wasn’t looking she ate her banana.  She burped loudly a time or two and watched with her owlish eyes while BL polished her plate off in her usual record time.  Then, when she thought enough time had elapsed, and I wasn’t watching, she ate her Schwan’s chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich, and then continued to sit in her chair with that stubborn, determined air.

I pondered my options. I knew that if this came down to a confrontation, it wouldn’t end well.  I was ashamed of how angry this whole thing made me.  It wasn’t just this incident.  It felt like a whole catalog of miniscule rebellions had been adding up over the last week.  In addition to being angry, I was soul weary.  A deep self-pity was washing over my heart as I realized that, once again, these two individuals that I care for are mostly incapable of understanding or even caring about what I was feeling or thinking or dealing with on any given day.  Not that they couldn’t have learned, somewhere along the line, but temperaments as well as life experiences have left them feeling like they have to watch out for #1 at all costs.

And so, I rattled around my kitchen for a while and fought an inner war with myself.  “It’s only a bowl of soup, Mary Ann.  For pity sakes!”  “But it’s the principle of the thing!”  “Do you really want a fight on your hands?  Is it worth it?  You know she’ll be angry and psychotic for the rest of the night.”  “I know, but –”  And on and on and on.  I finally decided that I was just going to go out of the house for a minute and find out what Daniel was doing.  That way, she could leave the table, dump the soup in the trash, or do whatever, and I wouldn’t have to deal with it.

So I cheerfully said to her, “Hettie, I’m going to go out and see what Daniel’s doing.  I’ll only be a minute.”  And I forced myself to smile at her.

“Alright,” she said, without any enthusiasm.

I toyed with the idea of traipsing around on the deck to look in the kitchen window to see what she did when I left, but I decided that was a little overdone.  I went on out, saw Daniel working himself silly in the hot evening sun, and then went back in.  Hettie was gone.  Her supper cleared away except for the white Corelle bowl, still filled with a thick beef stew, swimming with chunks of succulent beef.  It sat, lonely and defiant at her place at the table.  I sighed and scraped it into the compost bucket and cleared the rest of supper away.

We didn’t speak much the rest of the evening.  Whenever I did talk to her, I acted as if nothing had happened, and she, though not overly friendly, did not mention the uneaten beef stew.  The evening finished as usual, with bedtime juice and the usual routines.  I nursed my hurt feelings, and wondered if this was one of those things that I was just overreacting about.

Morning dawned, and with it, no lessening of my angst.  I try to keep mornings as happy as possible, with cheery greetings, silly songs and extra help for Hettie with dressing, breakfast and such.  But this morning, there was not much cheeriness.  Rather, there was a war going on in this carnal heart of mine.

“Maybe I should just turn the tables on her,” I reasoned in some of my lesser glorious moments.  “I’ll put out her meds, but she can just get the rest of her breakfast by herself!  She can get her own banana, fix her own tea, get her own ice water, and make her own oatmeal. And do without her strawberry yogurt.   If she doesn’t like the food I fix for her, she’ll just have to find out how far she gets by herself!”

It’s not that she can’t fix her own breakfast, but over the years that she has been here with us, I have found that fixing her breakfast for her sets her into a better frame of mind, makes her feel loved and, as a result, makes it an easier start to the day.  So I thought and pondered and practiced how I could say this in a way that would make her know exactly how wrong she had been, how she needed to suffer for what she had done, and learn her lesson from the (obvious) natural consequences of her behavior.  I almost had it down pat when that little voice came into my thoughts that always discomfits my best laid words.

I started thinking about our Hettie girl.  She isn’t a child.  She’s 67 years old.  Most of her life, all of her decisions have been made for her unless she provided enough disturbance to make things uncomfortable enough that someone would do things her way.  And by the time she got anything accomplished that she wanted, it was so long getting it done that she felt like it was only done because people were aggravated (not because they loved her).  Which, unfortunately, was probably true.  She has endured hurtful words, physical abuse, social ostracism, and dealt with paranoia, pain and misunderstanding over and over again.  In the years that she has lived with us, we’ve tried hard to make these years the best years of her life, and constantly reassure her that she is loved, that she is wanted, that she is NEEDED, that she is safe, and that she is a grown woman and that, as such, she has choices.  There will always be things that she wants that she cannot have.  She would like to live independently.  She would like to not take her psych medicine.  She would like to have massive amounts of money at her disposal to spend as she wants.  She would like to live on Pepsi and chocolate and chips.

And while I do try to make sure that she eats properly, it really isn’t my right to tell her what she likes and what she doesn’t like.  And if she really doesn’t like beef stew for some reason on a given night, how is that offense-worthy?  And if a person with a history of diminished value on almost every aspect of her life can’t even decide that they don’t want supper on a given night, is that cause to treat her with decided coolness?  Or to think of ways to “punish” her?  Well, I wouldn’t go straight to “punish” but make the “natural consequences” more difficult for her?

I decided that I would fix part of her breakfast for her.  She could get her own oatmeal, but I would do the rest.  I still wasn’t feeling all that gracious, but I knew I had my own heart work to do, and I also knew that God has been so gracious to me when it comes to things like this that I was pretty sure it would right itself without any help on Hettie’s part.  And she was more grudging that she had to fix her own oatmeal than she was grateful for what I had done.  But I decided that was okay.

The next day, at Byler’s Store, I found some breakfast sandwiches that looked wonderful.  She loves Jimmy Dean Sausage, egg and cheese croissants, and I thought these looked like they would be even better.  I brought them home.  I thought they were a little more work than Jimmy Dean, and they were on biscuits instead of croissants, but they really looked yummy.  When she came out to eat breakfast the following morning, there was a napkin with a note on it, her tea and yogurt and banana and ice water — and the new breakfast sandwich standing ready.

She didn’t like it.  It was “too dry” and the flavor wasn’t good.  She coughed and snorted and carried on and sighed.

She was probably halfway through the sandwich when I started to cry.  I stood at the counter putting out her meds with my face averted from her and cried hot, bitter, disappointed, sad, misunderstood tears.  I really didn’t know why this all mattered so much to me.  I knew that the tears weren’t just for that silly sandwich or even Hettie’s stubbornness and independent quirks, but I felt such a deep, deep sadness and a good dose of frustration and a (teeny bit!) mad.  But Hettie never noticed, and it was time to get BL finished up and out the door.  I got the tears dried, packed the lunch, got BL into her wheelchair and pretended that everything was fine with Hettie.

When everyone was out the door, I may have cried some more.

But then God  (it’s always better for me when God interrupts my pity parties with a lesson from what’s troubling me) reminded me again of something that has nothing to do with how Hettie responds, but everything to do with how I respond to her.  To her, yes, but also to a Heavenly Father who provides me with everything I need, gives me more than I need, and loves me with an everlasting love.  And sometimes I sit at His table and refuse to eat.  Or protest that what He has given isn’t good enough.  That it doesn’t taste good.  That it goes down dry.  That it doesn’t satisfy me.  And it doesn’t cross my mind to think about what He thinks of my evaluation of His provision.

“Oh, Lord Jesus.  This hasn’t been about Our Girl Hettie at all, has it?
Create in me a clean heart, Oh God, and renew a right spirit within me . . .

And this humbled heart shall bring you grateful praise.”

1 Comment

Filed under disabilities, home living, mental illness