Monday, November 21, 2011


There's a lot of grim humor in the nurses' station at a psych hospital. You have to joke, or it would be unbearable. So when a patient comes in and the nurses or social workers say, "Oh, I love him. I hope they assign him to our team," for a while I thought they were being sarcastic.

I eventually realized it wasn't a joke. When the staff say, "I just love him," or "She's such a sweetheart," they mean it. Some patients aren't easy to work with, like the woman who stands at the door of the nurses' station bawling "I wanna get ouuuuutta here! What's wroooong with you people?" As her social worker gets up to go talk to her, there's affection on her face mixed with the exasperation.

If you're a people person, a psych ward is a strangely satisfying place to work. You see a different part of people, rawer and deeper.

A typical episode: One of the older women is having a rough day. She's been sitting at the table in the milieu muttering and shouting all morning. The most veteran counselor there, a burly American Indian man the patients call "Chief", walks to the middle of the room and stands before her. He plants his feet, spreads his arms, and begins to sing.

"You must have been a beautiful baby,
You must have been a wonderful child,"

Activity in the milieu stops. The patients turn to look.

"When you were only starting to go to kindergarten
I bet you drove the little boys wild.

(This is true. She showed us a picture of herself as a young woman, and she was gorgeous.)

"You must've been a beautiful baby,
'Cause baby, look at you now!"

He finishes up, arms flung wide. It works: she cracks a smile.

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