Leave it to experience, or maybe just that one thing, that one small instruction, that stuck in her mind and proved essential.
Connie Bent made a home visit as a resident social worker, and the elderly man in the one-room apartment got agitated. He drew back his fist, and Bent thought, “He’s going to hit me in the glasses.”
In a flash, she remembered a technique suggested by someone advising her in the care of her husband, Jerry, who had been diagnosed, in the early going, with schizophrenia.
“If he draws his fist back,” the person said, “tilt your head sideways.” The action, she was told, will confuse the person.
Thus, in the later incident, Bent did just this, an abrupt angling from the neck up. The elderly man lowered his fist. The trick worked.
In this way, the trials Bent endured in dealing with a family mental illness informed what would become a long career as a clinical social worker. Not that she wanted that, not the pain of these lessons and the ache of seeing a loved one suffer, her family bound by turmoil.
Almost four decades after Jerry’s death, she offers this hard-won wisdom.
“The person who suffers from a mental disorder, or the family member who loves this person, should not give up hope,” Bent said. “It was this that kept me going.”
In more description, the Hiawatha, Kansas, resident has written a memoir, “Hope, Courage & Triumph,” in which she tells the story of her marriage and how a resolute person can make it past hardship.
Bent knew some adversity early. Born in Brookfield, Missouri, and moving with her family to Weston, she fell for a West Platte High Schooler named Jimmie. After her junior year, the two snuck off to Miami, Oklahoma, to get married.
“We kept it secret for a while,” she remembered. “(My parents) didn’t like it at all.”
The marriage had its ups and downs, but the young couple had two children and even planned a vacation to Niagara Falls. Before that could happen, though, Jimmie had a car accident and died after spending 16 days in a coma.
At age 25, Connie had become a widow.
“I’m a very determined person,” she said, “extremely determined.”
After becoming a mother, she sought a return to high school to get her diploma. The superintendent balked. So she had to plead her case to the school board in order to return.
She would marry Jerry, a military dentist, and they lived in Maryland while he served at Walter Reed Medical Center. His behavior began to be a concern.
“He did some strange things, but I didn’t really know,” Bent said. “He was always getting sick. If I said I had a stomach ache, his was worse, and he’d go to bed.”
His military superiors ordered an evaluation, and schizophrenia came back as the diagnosis. (A later evaluation pegged him as manic-depressive.) Connie got the news, of his diagnosis and prospective military discharge, in a phone call.
“I couldn’t tell the kids for a couple of days,” she said. “I had to get myself under control before I told them.”
In the book, the author took care to include not just the bad times, the dangerous times, but also the positive moments. Throughout Jerry’s over-medications, his angry outbursts, his on-again, off-again demands to end the marriage (the two had one child together), Bent wanted to make the union work.
“I just couldn’t give up,” she said. “If you’re determined that something will happen, you’re also hopeful something will happen. You work for it.”
Along the way, a psychiatrist told her she would be “a natural” in working with people. At Washburn University, she would get her undergraduate degree, followed up by a master’s degree in clinical social work from the University of Kansas.
She retired after a 30-year career in social work in 2009.
Writing the book proved a cleansing for Bent, who felt her experiences would help others. The process brought back some difficult memories, including during some middle-of-the-night sessions at the keyboard.
“I wanted to reach out and talk to somebody. But who do you call at 3 in the morning?” she said. “I boo-hooed and boo-hooed. I just broke down.”
Bent persevered, and she believes others can, no matter their personal difficulties.
“It is important to have hope and courage as you face the future,” she said, “because there are new treatments being developed all the time.”
Connie Bent’s book “Hope, Courage & Triumph” can be purchased at her website, www.hopecourageandtriumph.com.