Here is another in my series of fictional accounts inspired by people I met while I was in the hospital.

Ethel’s Story


            Ethel sat at the table and sobbed out her story after lunch.  Most of the community members had wandered off, but I sat back and listened, and a couple of others came and went.  Her roommate Dierdre sat across the table from her as Ethel             melted down and opened up.

            To be honest, none of us knew Ethel.  She had arrived sometime in the past day or two, and kept to her room.  I hadn’t seen her in community or group meetings, or in any of the activities.  Dierdre had convinced her to come to the dining hall for lunch once or twice, but only after most of the others had left.  Though most of the women either wore casual clothes or hospital gowns with robes, Ethel wore a dress.  It had been stylish 30 or 40 years ago.

            I was accidentally aware of part of her story already.  My room was across the hall from the pay phone, and with my door open (as it always had to be) I couldn’t avoid hearing some of the conversations.  Ethel had been called to the phone earlier that morning; and, though I could only hear one end of the conversation, I could tell that it was her employer, and that it wasn’t good.

            “Yes, sir; in a day or two, I’m sure…No, sir, they don’t think it’s anything serious, but the doctor wanted to admit me for a day or two for observation….No, sir, I’m sure it had nothing to do with the job; I just haven’t been sleeping well…No, sir, I’m going to be fine, and…sir, I understand I don’t have any sick time left but…No, sir, please don’t do that.  I promise I’ll be there in a day or two…yes, I know how busy you are…I understand, sir, and I would never ask you to hold my position if I weren’t…Oh…Oh…I see…Yes, sir, I understand, but can’t…Yes, sir.  I’ll be in to pick up my check…Goodbye.”  And that was the prelude to the crisis in the dining room.

            What I didn’t know until that afternoon was that Ethel’s husband had passed away within the last month, and that, in her own words, she was stuck.  She had to adjust to living on her own, and she had no idea how to cope.  She didn’t drive; her husband Ron had always taken her everywhere.  She had never written a check or paid a bill or used a credit card; Ron had handled the money and gave her cash each week for grocery money.  They had never had children, and she had always stayed home as a housewife until a year or two earlier, when her husband had asked her to get a part-time job to help out.

            She had enjoyed being a housewife.  She loved to cook and sew; she made her own clothes.  Her pies were always a hit at the church socials, and all the neighbor kids looked forward to trick-or-treating at her house, where they always got her homemade pumpkin popcorn balls.  Her life had been what she had always expected it to be:  breakfast at 7; pack a lunch for Ron; household chores like washing and ironing and dusting and mopping the floors until noon; soup and a sandwich for lunch; a soap opera or two on television, and then dinner on the table at 5:30.  Evenings were often spent with knitting or needlework while Ron listened to the ball game, then to bed at 10.  If it was a rut, she was glad to have been stuck in it.

            It wasn’t that she couldn’t have had a career if she had wanted one.  After high school she had taken a secretarial course at the local business college, and she was a good typist, and better than average at taking dictation in shorthand.  But then she met Ron, and there was no need to work.  He always had taken care of her, and even apologized when he sent her out to work.  And then he wasn’t there any more, and all she had to count on was her job.  And now she had lost her job, and she was stuck.

            Dierdre had been listening intently, and questioned her about losing her job.  Didn’t she know that her employer couldn’t legally fire her because of a disability, and the problems that landed her here counted as a disability? 

            Ethel said that she knew, but it would mean she would have to tell her boss where she was, and why—that she had “gone crazy”—and she couldn’t do that.  She worried what the church ladies would say if they knew she was in the “nut house”.  She said she was just glad that she didn’t have any children; her mother had been “put away” in her later years, and now here she was herself.  At least it would stop here.

            Nonsense, Dierdre argued.  Nobody thought like that any more—this is 2012, for goodness’ sake!  Mental illness is a sickness—a treatable, curable sickness that she shouldn’t be ashamed of.  In fact, Ethel should be proud of herself that she was getting help!

            Ethel just sobbed and shook her head.  She couldn’t accept what Dierdre was telling her.  She expected that she would be locked up for the rest of her life, and even if she got out, what would she do?  No one would hire a crazy lady for their office.

            Dierdre shifted gears and suggested that Ethel could work from home.  She understood that a lot of medical transcription was still being done that way, and she would be able to use her skills in a productive and profitable way.

            No, it wouldn’t work, Ethel maintained.  She didn’t have her typewriter any more, so how could she work from home?

            She was stuck.