written by Lacey Roy, freelance writer
interviewed: Marla Byrnes, President of NAMI-Syracuse, namisyracuse.org
Listening to Marla Byrnes, the President of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) -Syracuse chapter. As she told her story was an honor that I replay often. There is a level of compassion with Marla that simply doesn’t exist in the vast majority of the population. Even less when looking at the field of psychiatry. An incredibly difficult field of medicine, there are no tests, MRI’s, nor definitive answers of any kind.
Every patient’s symptoms are unique to them. Even if sharing the same diagnosis with someone else. We all know the stigma that comes with mental illness. There is a long way to go to becoming equal members of society. But there are those few amazing individuals. Who were seeing those of us with mental illnesses differently from the start. Meet Marla Byrnes, registered nurse at Hutchings’ psychiatric ward, now retired.
Standing in the center of the admissions area. The smoke-tinged air had an antiseptic sharpness to it. A cacophony of noises called for attention but it was coming from all sides. It was a lesson in control to choose one area to focus on as a gu. Taller and bigger walked forward.
This is how I imagine Marla’s first week at Hutchings Psychiatric Center in Syracuse, NY. “A patient set fire to a mattress, two people were in strait-jackets, and it was WILD. They threw me into the deep end in the first week and I thought. ‘Oh! Well, this isn’t boring!’”. Having come from one of Harvard’s teaching hospitals in Boston as an intensive care nurse. Marla interviewed at Hutchings and accepted the job offer the same day.
At that time psychiatrists believed that mental illness symptoms. Were behaviors that were the fault of poor parenting, singling out mothers specifically. “I watched families come in and out. Visiting their very ill loved ones and I realized the paradox of what the psychiatrists were telling us. I could not accept the belief it was the family’s fault their brother/sister/wife/husband was so ill. it just didn’t make sense.”
Following her intuition, Marla went straight to the top and joined the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). And didn’t waste any time getting to the national conference in Chicago. Walking into a conference filled with family members, immersing themselves in the latest research. and banding together to form an alliance to push against a dismissive medical field was mind-blowing. During a time when symptoms were viewed by doctors as behavior problems. And fault-worthy, Marla joined the ranks of changing the national, and medical, mindset. While devouring the latest research of mental illness as a biological illness.
Marla’s experiences sharpened her into a force to be reckoned with through her fierce compassion. “What I realized right away was I’m the tool. There’s no IV, no ventilators, I’m the one that makes the difference. I can talk to somebody, or listen to somebody, and they can calm down or feel safe. It was like, ‘Oh my God, what a gift!’ That somebody who is so terrified, so distressed, that I make them feel a little better, a little safer? A little more protected?”.
When sharing this, Marla’s compassion and appreciation for what she could offer leaked out of her eyes, tears trailing down beautiful cheeks one after another. “That feeling of power, the power to help make somebody’s day a little bit better… I can offer them some kind of comfort. People who are so in the midst of psychosis, you’re not even sure you’re reaching them but just by your tone and your posture, and sometimes just simple little kindnesses to people can change their day in such a vulnerable place.”
The red-headed step child of medicine, and the side of society that the general population still struggles to understand, psychiatric centers and hospital wards illicit interesting responses from people. “I would tell people I worked at Hutchings and they would react like it was such a big nightmare, asking if I was afraid.
No! Truly, my 30 years working in psychiatry was a huge gift to me because I got to meet the finest people I’ve ever known. People with such compassion for one another, someone’s got nothing and so somebody goes ‘well I have two cigarettes left, you can have one.’ Struggling themselves and yet are so gracious and generous and compassionate to other people, I got to see such humanity and from a population of people who are still so devalued by our society.”
As I listened to Marla, I couldn’t help but share her tears, not of sadness but from witnessing such a beautiful soul share her compassion. Marla’s membership in NAMI has continued for over 25 years playing many integral parts now including president of the Syracuse chapter since last year. Working beside Marla has taught me more about myself and other people than my college studies in Sociology and Human Services. Mental illness is simply a different way to live, a new normal, that needs nothing more than compassion, whether with yourself or someone you pass-by.
The National Alliance for Mental Illness is far-reaching with educational programs for schools, peer and family support groups, anti-stigma campaigns, and so on with multiple local chapters in each state. For information visit www.nami.org and please keep in mind, as the tax season starts closing, each local chapter relies on donations.