I’m the newbie. I recently started work at a psychiatric hospital, and what that means is – I only know what I’m doing about 62% of the time. (And all the other employees know it, too: I’m sure they’ve figured out that I was the one who accidentally tripped the emergency exit alarm at midnight. Awkward…)
A few years ago, I watched a made-for-TV movie called “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”, about this teenage boy who ends up in a psych ward temporarily. The story involved sneaking off the unit to play basketball in the gym, budding romances, music, and basically a lot of fun wrapped up in a little craziness.
Now that I’m in the psych business, so to speak, I can attest and verify that the reality has very little to do with the movie. (But then again, it’s Hollywood – what else can you expect?)
For one thing, the nurses – and they weren’t featured much in the movie – seemed, in hindsight, to have entirely too much free time, and entirely too little control, over their patients. Trust and believe that there generally isn’t a lot of down time – either you’re stuck behind a computer, stuck in a small room giving out meds, or stuck trying to figure out what to do in a complicated situation. Psych work takes a lot of efficiency and time-management, and it’s a steep learning curve.
For another, budding romances are a big no-no. Despite what some of the patients would wish – and what they attempt – it’s really not that great an idea, and we work hard to prevent that sort of thing from happening. It’s the kind of thing that can get you (as a staff member) fired, if anything inappropriate happens on your watch. And, you know, people are ingenious. Despite round-the-clock surveillance and cameras, I’ve heard stories about patients actually managing to….ahem, get it on, in other facilities. In my line of work, that’s kind of a horror story – did you hear about facility xyz, where patients had sex in the closet/empty bedroom/small lounge? #Cringe
Also, as it turns out, there’s a lot of fear, though well-hidden, on the unit. You never know when a patient is going to attack you with a chair or something. (BTW, that’s not a random example: on my first week on the floor, one of my patients almost did throw a – heavy – chair – at me. I skipped out of the way in double-quick time, which is why it’s also important to be light on your feet.)
I could go on. But instead, you know, I want to share some of the neat things I’ve learned since working there. And since I’m trying to be all organized and utilize prioritization skills (a must, in the profession) I shall attempt to catalog them, in order of importance. See below:
1) The pen is mightier than the sword. With a simple stroke of a pen, you can really change a person’s life. But also, the pen wields a great deal of power over me: I spend so much time documenting, I barely get to see my patients without a lot of sustained effort. Charting before I see the patient, trying to squeeze in some therapeutic communication, then charting inventively about my interventions after I talk to them…it ain’t easy, bein’ cheezy.
2) A smile, and a soothing tone of voice, can work wonders. When someone is on the edge, simply smiling and talking to them in a gentle, calm voice can really avert a tantrum, a fight, or a need for more serious interventions later. So if you ever come to my work, you’ll hear a lot of gentleness and a lot of calm voices. But it ain’t necessarily how we really feel: those are the tools of the trade. Which bears some thinking about: how do you smile sincerely, when you don’t feel it? Fake it till you make it, I suppose.
3) At the end of the day, love what you do. At the end of my shift, when I’m walking down the halls checking on them, and I see people deeply asleep, sprawled over their beds, it hits me that, for all their flaws and troubles, these are human beings. Vulnerable, troubled, hurting, and in need of help. It’s easy to miss this, in all of the hullabaloo and raised voices during the day, but, when things are quiet, a mere glimpse of who they are, at peace, is important. It makes me want to help them, even though it feels at times like I don’t have the time, or the skills, or the bandwidth.
(On second thought, I don’t think I cataloged right. All these things are important, but maybe the last, the most.)
I don’t know how long I’ll work here. But I hope that I can have a positive impact on these lives. Since I see them at their worst, and not after they leave, it’s hard to know. But I can continue to try, and hope. I think that’s all anyone can do. Right?
That, and try not to have to stay over at the end of the shift to finish my documentation. Time management – is there an app for that?
Chloe* wrote this piece for Flux, an online forum for those of us encountering adulthood. She is a choco-holic and booknerd who loves quoting random facts at people, sunlight, and trying new things (just once). Her dearest ambition is to figure out the ultimate question of life, since the answer, according to Douglas Adams, is 42.
*Chloe is a pseudonym – this piece was submitted anonymously.