Keys to the Mental Institution


mental instituteFor two years I worked nights at a state hospital. The joke has always been, I worked there; I had the keys and they were real, not the big plastic Fischer Price keys- mine actually opened thick doors that swung in toward crazy. I had wanted to become a psychologist and started school with that intent. Work was never boring, and by the end of those two years I decided being an English teacher may be a better life choice.

The most interesting nights were when I worked on the admittance ward. People came in with full psychosis, seeing and hearing God; and the weird thing is that almost  “>all of the patients in admit called me a bitch. On a particulary busy night I was admitting a woman in her thirties who was very articulate and not showing any signs of anything crazy related- she never opened her blouse (yes that was common) and never called me a bitch. She worked as a secretary, and up until that afternoon all was well in her life.

“Now, tell me what happened. Why are you here tonight?” I asked her. She looked right at me; her blond hair perfectly coiffed to her shoulders like Laura Petry. I learned to expect the unexpected, but she got me. She said, “Because I died of AIDS today silly!” And then she laughed a maniacal laugh that echos in my mind today. I looked at her chart- nope, she was alive, so I sent her to her room. I still wonder why she didn’t ask me where her coffin was, or if she needed to put on her funeral suit. Instead, she put on a red robe, and sat in the darkness. Patients need to be checked on a lot- nothing short of every 15 minutes. I took the flashlight and headed down the corridor flashing the light onto the many faces of Adam and Eve. When I got to the dead ladies room I angled the light toward the back of the room. Never in my time at the state hospital had I been so …. surprised. There she was, just standing in the dark with her red robe on, and a smile that said, “Hi, I am crazy, I think I will just stand here and freak people out.” It worked. I don’t remember jumping back, I just remember that I noted my flight reflex is just fine.

Once I got beaten up by a grandmother; she was sitting by the door with her head covered with a scarf and her purse held tight to her stomach. Wondering why the she was hunched over and not making eye contact, I called the ward veteran nurse. “Does she have her purse?” “Yes,” I answered holding the phone to my right ear to have a clear view of grandma through the bullet-proof glass.  “Is her head covered?” “Yes, again, what is going on?” I thought that was a good question.

“Get back-up, at least two men from upstairs, don’t talk to her or touch her. Wait for the back-up.”

I waited and then “Miss I am smarter than the nurse overrides the wait plan and tells me we are going to get grandma back in bed.

“But, I was told to wait,” I stammered. Veteran nurse just seemed smarter than the one-upper I shared the same title with.

Three of us went over to Grandma, Miss know-nothing looks at me and says “When I tell you to grab her hand do it fast.” Was Grandma packing heat? A rolling pin? A knife? Knitting needles? What is up with 5’3″ 58 year old grandma?

“NOW!” I may have been a second off- didn’t quite get a hold of Grandma’s hand- so the fight was on. She kick, hit, rolled and spit. I got her down on the floor and had her arms pinned. Her bun was coming undone as she squirmed; her legs still kicking and quite fearsome. Our third member of the ‘take-grandma down’ team was a young Korean woman who just stood and screamed. I asked, no, told her to lay across the legs to completely pin her down. FINALLY, she did, but Grand ma had one more weapon- her teeth.

Snap! Snap! She wanted to bite her way to freedom. Miss Stupid-wouldn’t-wait-for-back-up, leaned over the struggling old woman, grabbed her cheeks and pulled out her teeth. Once the teeth were gone, so was all her fight. She went limp. The two men I had called in for back-up ran over. The nurse was ready with a shot- Grandma was taken to bed, put in two-point restraints and slept the rest of the night peacefully. To this day, whenever I see a denture commercial, I think of Grandma and how easy it is for someone to just pull your teeth out- I am all for keeping mine permanent!

Some nights I just got tired of being called a bitch. On the admit ward we had the wife of a once prominent politician. She was suffering from a manic phase that had lasted way too long. She saw me walk into the door and followed me. I sat down and she sat across from me. She was in her 60’s, slim and well-dressed. She smoked. All the mental patients smoked. She crossed her thin legs and bounced her leg causing the polyester to make a swish, swish noise. “You bitch!” she yelled. “You have no idea who I am!”

I was certainly tired since I worked the night shift, but even more tired of everyone calling me a bitch.

“I do know who you are, and you have no idea who I THINK I am. Do not, please, do not call me a bitch again.”

It was a stand-off. She pointed her boney finger and told me that she was going to have me fired; that she was rich, blah blah blah. She ended her tirade with….”you bitch.”

That was it. I had enough. I stood up and said she was going to have to go to the blue room and calm down. Every time she called me bitch, she got five more minutes. The blue rooms is a crazy person’s time out, only it is a room, wit ha lock on the outside of the door.I counted twelve bitches. That made for an hour of time in the blue room. I slammed and locked the door and turned toward the nurses station. Parents with teenagers should have a blue room installed- it works wonders! Did I mention that they were sound proof as well?

The only time I ever felt real fear was the night a beautiful Indian woman said ‘body control’ was out to get her. She begged for my help, “He is after me and he will hurt me. Body control is going to kill me!” I asked her, “Who is body control?”  this woman, who had been writhing in fear on her bed fell back and closed her eyes. Her head rolled and she turned toward me and said in deep manly tone, “I am body control, and she is mine!”

I ran out of the room and when I got to the nurse I told her that the patient needed her meds and fast. I wished I could have had a little myself. If the voice had sounded contrived, maybe I would not have gone back to my Baptist roots and thought maybe she was possesed- but she was just crazy. When I pulled out my keys to go home that night after the last person said good night bitch, I was glad I could walk out, get in my car and drive away. When I would get home I would hug my little girls who called me moma- I prefer that moniker over bitch any day!

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