“CAREGIVING AND CHINESE WATER TORTURE”
GEORGE PETRIE – LONGBOAT KEY FLORIDA
Chinese water torture is a process in which water is slowly dripped onto a person's forehead, allegedly driving the restrained victim insane. This form of torture was first described under a different name in Italy in the 15th or 16th century:
Victims were strapped down so that they could not move, and cold or warm water was then dripped slowly on to a small area of the body; usually the forehead. The forehead was found to be the most suitable point for this form of torture because of its sensitivity: prisoners could see each drop coming, and after long durations were gradually driven frantic as a perceived hollow would form in the center of the forehead.
Till Death Do Us Part
All through the day and almost every night he would scream “HELP”. He would scream so loudly that even the neighbors could hear him. At first, they would come to the house to inquire as to what was wrong. Once they found out the reason they transitioned to angry that their peace and quiet was being violated. The question was why didn’t they wonder how his wife was enduring all of this? Why didn’t they understand that she couldn’t do anything to stop him from screaming? Why didn’t they understand that he couldn’t stop screaming?
She had sworn never to put him in a “nursing home”. Years ago when his memory started to fade and his mental status deteriorated she had sat holding his hand and promised him that he would always stay home with her and she would take care of him. All she knew was that she loved him and no one would ever take him away. She knew that he would probably die before her but, until then, she would prove her vow of “till death do us part”.
Even she knew that she had “lost” him years ago. When he first started to refer to her as his “mother” she knew that he no longer recognized her as the woman he had loved for over 50 years. She knew that they would never again share the loving moments that had made up all of their days together. Now he would yell and curse at her; things he had never, ever done before.
He was a gentle man. He was always kind and considerate and she could only remember two or three times in all their years that she had seen him lose his temper. One of his best qualities, as she would explain it, was that he was quick to forget and forgive. He never held a grudge and easily pardoned others transgressions. Sometimes she wished that he wouldn’t be so quick to forgive people and she would tease him for letting others take advantage. “Oh Margaret”, he would say, “It’s not important to hold a grudge”.
Now she never knew what hideous thing he might say to her. She had never heard him curse and suddenly he would shout obscenities at her even if she simply walked into the room he was in.
He had either lost control of his bodily functions or simply didn’t remember basic skills such as toileting. Several times a day she would have to struggle to clean him, change his diaper and make him comfortable. She had to feed him all of his meals. He was now the child that they never had. Like a newborn infant, all of his needs needed to be provided by someone else.
The difference here was that he would never “grow out” of this period in his life. He would not suddenly one day learn how to go to the bathroom, brush his teeth and grow into adulthood. That process was complete and now it had reversed itself.
Her family and friends kept telling her that it was too much for her. Too much?.... How can anyone measure this kind of obligation? How could anyone tell her to turn her back on him? How could they expect her to put him somewhere with strangers and trust that they would take care of him as though he was one of their own?
“NO” she repeated over and over again when anyone suggested anything other than keeping him at home with her. “I’m fine” she would say whenever anyone would tell her that she needed to take better care of herself. Her overall appearance, once important, was not part of her preoccupation any more. Her nutritional needs took a back seat to his and her sole focus was making sure he had enough to eat and drink while she subsisted mostly on tea and soda crackers.
Certainly she had lost a lot of weight. She was always in good physical shape, even for her age, but it was easy for anyone to notice that she had become dangerously thin and she was ignoring her own personal hygiene. The house was clean and orderly as she had lots of time on her hands when she wasn’t tending to his needs.
Night after night, day after day he would scream out. “Help, help, help” over and over again. She had learned that there was nothing she could do to “help” him. He was fed, cleaned and appeared to be comfortable but something in his mind was telling him that there was a threat. Something in his mind was telling him that he needed to run, but he couldn’t. She knew that he couldn’t control it but she also knew that every time he screamed out and she was helpless to do anything, it would tear at her heart. She had cried most of her tears. The pain was still there but she had taken on an emotionless existence, hiding the ache and the frustration and refusing to allow herself to admit that it was all too much.
Night after night she would lie in her bed listening to him scream. Sometimes he would stop for short periods of time and she would drift off, only to be startled awake by his strident calling out. A full nights rest was a luxury that was lost to her but she seemed to have resigned herself to the fact that she would always have to be there for him, even if there was nothing she could do.
He became my patient when her children asked for someone to go to the home and make an evaluation. Hospice had been called but she had refused to allow them to come into the home. She was certain that they would not know how to take care of him and she did not want to relinquish his care to “strangers”. No amount of counseling, cajoling or pleading was going to take him away from her. She had promised to be there and she would, no matter what price she might have to pay.
I tried to convince her that she needed help but I didn’t have any more success than anyone else. There is no “magic wand” or special method in these types of interventions. She was not “incapacitated” or incompetent and therefore she was not a ward of the court and couldn’t be forced to do anything she didn’t want to do. She seemed to enjoy my visits, it gave her someone to talk to besides herself and she was able to open up to me about her feelings. She told me that she “wished” she could get a full night’s sleep and, of course, that her husband was the man he used to be. She cried when I was there. It was as though she felt it was safe to let me see into soul and see how much pain she was suffering. There wasn’t anything I or anyone else could do but at least for these few moments I knew that she was letting go of all that she was holding inside. I wondered how she had managed to hold all of her emotions in check for so long. All I could think of was a pressure cooker. How much pressure could she endure before everything would come crashing down. Actually the real question in my mind was whether or not things would come to a head or if she was one of those rare individuals who seemed to be able to cope despite what seemed to be insurmountable odds.
I couldn’t help but ask her if there was anything I could do. I already knew her answer but she simply smiled and said “I appreciate the fact that you come by once a week to check on things and it is nice to talk with you but there really isn’t anything anyone can do. Right now it is in God’s hands”.
When I would leave she would always seem a little more relaxed, despite the fact that, in the background, the man she had married was screaming “Help!;;help!”
As I drove back to my office, after one of these visits, I wondered if there was more I could do. I remember thinking that there had to be a solution but I didn’t have a clue as to what it could be.
I knew from all of my schooling and personal immersion in healthcare and aging that her situation was not unusual and there was an enormous segment of the aged population experiencing the same thing she was. Some of them took advantage of the social services available to them and some, like her, remained invisible and overlooked.
“Help! Help! Help!” all night and all day. Sometimes he would sleep for short periods, the rest of the time he would scream. Drip…drip…drip on her forehead day after day night after night. She loved him but, slowly like a rock being carved by time and weather, her veneer started to crack. She loved him but she prayed for forgiveness when she couldn’t help but be angry. She prayed for forgiveness when she hated him. She knew it wasn’t him that she hated but she hated what he had become.
One day the television news and the newspapers were full of the story. “Elderly Woman Shoots Self and Husband”. Suddenly everyone near and far, those who knew them and those who didn’t came to hear the story about a horrendous crime. A wife had shot her husband and then taken her own life. The stories that were told only dealt with the “crime”. Nothing was ever said about the pain that both of these people had endured alone. No one ever said anything about the fact that they had slipped thru the safety net. No one ever said anything about the fact that there really was no safety net for them. She was a murderer and he was a victim. She was vilified and her legacy was tainted with her horrible crime.
I went to their funeral. The service was humble and was for both of them and they were buried side by side in the plot that they had purchased years ago. Now no one would have to take care of either of them and both of their burdens had been lifted.
Their children blamed her for not getting help and the general consensus was that she was an evil, selfish woman. The “Christian” people “ knew” that she would burn in hell and the non-believers thought that she should have survived and been punished for her crime. People drove by the house to see what the place looked like. All of these people suddenly took an interest despite the fact that they were totally uninterested when she was so much in need. A knock on the door, a short visit, and some respite care would have helped. She wouldn’t accept help but she would certainly enjoy a visit. She would certainly enjoy knowing that there was someone out there who cared and understood what she was going through.
It rained the day they were buried. I stood close to their grave under a green tent. As I stood there I heard the drip…drip of the rainwater as it ran off the canopy onto the top of their caskets.