You Should Work Here
In a smelly closet covered in graffiti I made my first call. Please bring me clothes. Please. Please I begged. Please bring me a book that isn’t Nancy Drew, Tom Clancy or a religious self-help book from 1970. I need toothpaste. Soap. Deodorant. Socks. A bra they will allow me to wear. Everything about this room felt dirty. People paced back and forth during my call, listening, wanting my story.
The day room surprised me. For a space supposed to help bring comfort it rivaled the day rooms I saw when portrayed on Orange is the New Black. Limited chairs, dim lights, a single window and two locked doors. A TV cycled news shows and occasional sports. A small “tea and cocoa” station sat on the counter; however, tea and cocoa were limited and the seasoned folks hoarded it all in their rooms. A mini fridge with expired yogurt and left over milk nestled under the beverage station. My brain missed coffee as a headache pursued. A deaf Hispanic woman, Veronica, sat away from everyone signing with her interpreter. I remember feeling glad the facility arranged for an interpreter. Maybe they could get me one to me make sense of this situation?
A brilliant young teacher carefully colored intricate pictures. Her arms wrapped in gauze. She noticed none of the noise. She just kept a patient rhythm with her head bowed in concentration. Her art looked an awful lot like praying. An old man with silver speckled hair, D, hummed jazz tunes and sang the blues to keep people entertained. A college-aged blonde proudly showed off her jagged arm sewn up with stitches—she claimed her roommate attacked her. She boasted about beating her ass when she leaves. The counselors took more notes.
A quiet Asian girl failed her exams. Her family will never forgive her. She fashioned notecards out of papers and crayons to study for finals that already took place. A young man with long auburn locks and thick black wire frames chatted with the young girls and a heavy set 30 something about drugs, rock and roll, and freedom. A tiny Hispanic mother shook after returning from an electroshock therapy session. I thought that was only stuff in the movies. I scanned the room: more mothers, fathers, and “kids” needing better mothers and fathers. In dismay I made another call.
Later in the evening of my first full day I met my psychiatrist. She seemed unfazed but actually sympathetic to my story. I remember admiring her skin. A light brown complexion, smooth and clean, she wore kitten heels, slacks and a sweater. She provided me with tips for surviving this place, how to talk to my family, and she allowed me to weep openly without taking note of it. I needed a social worker. She promised to arrange for the social worker to meet with me. I closed the door with a sense of hope. I entered the day room for another medication call. More weight checks, blood pressure checks, vitals. More notes taken as my blood pressure remained high, I lost weight, and I still appeared nervous.
I went to bed after taking another pill. I slept terribly on the metal frame and putrid plastic mat. I read a couple of Dr. Phil book chapters. Despite the medication, I heard the clicking of pens, the pacing of staff as they walked the halls, the discussions at shift change, the snoring and sleep apnea machines. The sounds committed themselves to my memory.
I woke up with a new girl in my room: a heavy set, dark haired woman no older than 20. She gave birth 6 months ago to a daughter. Her boyfriend treated her badly. She hurt herself when she couldn’t take it anymore. After a violent domestic altercation the police brought her here. I gave her my pillow, tapped my hand on her shoulder and told her to rest.
I pretended to eat breakfast the next day. I still sat alone, but reveled in my shitty cup of decaf. The seasoned crew laughed and chatted over dried out potatoes, fake meat, and more sour orange juice. However, they joyously clapped when they discovered lunch and dinner featured soda. A mother of about 40, with a cool haircut, proclaimed hallelujah at the prospect of a Pepsi. I returned to the day room to fill out my “How I am Feeling Today” chart and learned my clothes arrived. They took my shoelaces but I could wear the tennis shoes to help support my posture to reduce my back pain.
I took my first shower—with an open door—and felt the grit of this place trickle down the nasty drain. I kept opening the curtain to assure no one looked in. The handsome counselor called in to make sure I was alright. I was more than alright. I savored the smell of soap and the softness of conditioner. I washed my body multiple times—maybe if I scrub enough all this will go away?
Dressed, warm, and with clean teeth I joined the group session. The counselor struggled. She didn’t know how to lead and redirect the dialogue. I raised my hand “What if we go around the room and give her suggestions of activities and discussion topics that we think will help us heal and practice coping?” Having mumbled few words the group seemed taken aback by my sudden confidence. “Yes we want to try that.”
The young teacher: I want more art and chances to be creative.
D: I want to talk about our histories and music.
The red-head with glasses: I need to talk about addiction.
The student: How do I handle pressure?
The deaf woman: I need you guys to slow down and look at me when you speak so I can read your lips.
The short Asian man that stared at me: I need more books.
The blonde girl with the large cut: I need to talk about how much I don’t want to go home. If I go back to my parents I am going to a living hell.
The addict father: I need to talk about my DUI.
The woman receiving electroshock: I can’t seem to get my brain right.
The mom with the cool haircut: I hate it here. I have so much stuff to do.
Me: I need to talk to the social worker.
The tension from the room lifted as the counselor made the list of needs. People just need to know someone is listening. A simple list validated days of circular discussions and evocative teeth pulling. Our session ended with smiles and excitement.
In the day room each person came up to me asking about my story. Similar to jail, they need to check you out and see what you’re all about. I managed to rustle up the gumption to reveal my reason. I articulated my deep emotional turmoil, the years of never escaping the grip of trauma, the pressure, the endless tasks, the nightmares, and my desperate need for peace. I wasn’t crazy. I just needed to come up for air after years of drowning. They listened so intently. Asking me thoughtful questions and encouraging me to keep the courage to cope. I taught them about moral injury by borrowing the artist’s markers and explaining how moral injury can cut us deep. I drew pictures and encouraged them to draw with me as we made sense of the concept. Years of trauma training as a professional started flowing out of me like I had been doing this my whole life. For over an hour we sat together and they actually let me teach them about what I knew about trauma responses and how it all played out in my real life. When we left for lunch they added two tables together so we could keep talking. One by one over the next 24 hours I learned more about the mental crisis than I ever could in gaining a degree. I kept telling them to recite “The center must hold.” “This is my pattern. I do not have to take this road. Change directions.” “Stop the train.”
We went to our afternoon group, sitting around the same pathetic table meant for conferences in the 60s, and each person started connecting the class coping tactic to their lives. They shared fears and used dialogue for collaborative problem solving. And one by one each revisited their story with a new lens. My heart sunk. The culmination of lifelong trauma experiences pulled me deep into compassion fatigue. As the counselor struggled to ask the right questions I started just looking across the table and pressing the speaker to find an authentic answer. I implored the group to recognize growth and that change requires discomfort and honoring the hard truths that keep us from progress. I lovingly pushed people. I took a risk. The session ended with the counselor asking me if I had a degree in the mental health field.
You should. You need to work here. Apply in three years.