I somehow managed to make it to the ripe old age of 25 without being called a whore. I suppose that’s not surprising, since I hadn’t even kissed anyone until I was 23.
But all that changed once I started working at the psych ward.
People had a lot to say when they found out. My brother kept trying to convince me it wasn’t really a job offer but a clever way for them to hospitalize me without my consent. He’d go so far as to silently beckon me over to the sink, turn on the water, and then whisper “It’s a trap.”
Friends told me to be careful because crazy people routinely chop people’s heads off and carry them around in pillowcases. I heard about a thousand stereotypes about straight jackets and shock therapy but no one warned me about the real threat:
I should’ve seen it coming when the nurse in my orientation class scoffed at my question of whether the hospital had a patient library.
“Ha! Those people can’t read.”
Anyone who begins a sentence with “those people” should probably have their head relocated to a pillowcase.
I spent two weeks in orientation, ingesting a steady stream of information that would have absolutely no bearing on my actual job. When I finally sat foot on the ward it became clear that this was a playground battlefield and there was a very well defined caste system that placed the nurses at the top, me in the middle, and the patients at the bottom. For the most part, I managed to go largely unnoticed for the first couple months. It wasn’t until I began to date one of the rec therapists that things got crazy.
The psych nurses did not appreciate the fact that I’d plucked up their favorite piece of eye candy. How was I to know that my middle-aged boyfriend had bedded half the females in the hospital a few decades before, when he’d been a sprite young lad?
Suddenly, I was Psych Ward Enemy Number One.
The rumors started out rather small, almost funny. Apparently I was a “distraction” to the male patients. Then, it was the male staff who were apparently so sex-crazed that they couldn’t even bear to perform their work duties while I was around. Before long, everyone was talking about the fact that I was flirting with the patients and interfering with their recovery. And obviously I was sleeping with all my coworkers.
At first, I took it in stride. These people and their opinions didn’t matter– I loved working with the patients and was using the night shift to edit my manuscript. I had zero experience with being slut-shamed and generally looked like this most days:
But things kept getting worse.
At the start of every shift, we had to listen to Nurse Sandy give Nurse Lily a report on each of the patients. Sandy liked to ingest a handful of pills somewhere in the middle of her shift and would be high as a kite by the time it was over. She wore bright blue converse all-stars and would have to stomp them up and down every other minute to wake herself up. I once watched as she fell asleep with her hand in mid-air, gesturing through a story about her dog when she was supposed to be reporting blood pressure readings.
One night, as we all filed out of the room to get to work, Sandy and Lily stood to block my exit. Lily shut the door and leaned against it as Sandy pointed her finger in my face.
“You need to go to the patient closet and pick out a new outfit.”
“Your clothing is a distraction, it’s obvious you want everyone to stare at you.”
I had no idea what to say but finally managed to ask how I was violating the dress code in loose fitting pants, a T-shirt, and a cardigan.
“Well, it’s not your clothing, it’s the way you look. You have big boobs and long legs.”
“So you don’t like my body?”
They continued to insist that I needed to put on a pair of the patients clothing and wouldn’t let up until I told them I’d just go home instead. A few minutes later, Sandy followed me out onto the ward.
“No one is trying to pick on you, we just want you to be safe and the way you look right now is putting you in danger.”
She started talking about some Jodie Foster movie I’d never seen, and how she’s sexually assaulted.
“All I’m saying is that this sort of thing happens in psych hospitals* and right now, if you were to get raped, it wouldn’t be anyone’s fault but your own.”
I don’t remember what I said, but I made it clear the conversation was over.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of it. Every shift I dealt with comments about my bra size or that my walk was “naturally seductive.” I couldn’t open a carton of milk without being accused of doing it in such a way that was clearly telling the men of the world to “do me, do me right now.”
Within the hospital there are a lot of subcultures of people who watch out for each other. One of my male coworkers (who didn’t want to do me, for the record) came to me one night and told me to watch my back. He and Lily were from the same country and she’d been talking about how I was a spoiled white bitch and she was going to make sure I knew my place.
I don’t know that much about Lily, other than how funny she thought it was when someone came to the hospital after a failed suicide attempt.
“These people are so worthless, they can’t even kill themselves properly.”
But I do know she was a bully. She sent me to pick up an obese patient in a wheelchair after triage called to request two male staff members for the escort. She assigned me to stay within arms reach of a sexually aggressive patient who spent his time throwing cups of urine on people.
I never reported any of this. It honestly didn’t even occur to me because the nursing management was so corrupt– let’s not forget that all these people ultimately answer to The Goat Man. All I wanted was to finish editing my book, earn some good stories, then be on my way. I never planned on letting the place leave me with scars.
One of our patients, Rizzo, has been with us for most of her adult life. She’s in her 70s now and I will have to tell you more about her in another post. I love her and she calls me “Alice” but when she has a psychotic episode she will claw your eyes out or flatten you with a table.
Everyone knew Rizzo’s warning signs and was supposed to let the nurse know to bring a PRN medication to calm her down. If you caught it early enough, Rizzo would happily take it and thank you for helping her prevent one of her “spells.” Lily preferred to sit in the nurses station and crochet rather than interact with the patients, so it was difficult to convince her it was worth her time. One night in particular, Rizzo became violent very quickly and Lily came stomping over to chastise her with hands on her hips.
Rizzo has an illness and you can’t chastise an illness.
Lily charged right into Rizzo’s room and told her to calm down. I followed, because you never leave someone alone in a situation like that. But as soon as I was through the door, Lily ran out and slammed it shut behind me.
I’d never been in one their rooms with the door shut. It was against a thousand different policies but Rizzo was standing between me and the door, screaming that she was going to kill me. When she finally lunged at me, I made a run for the door and barely got it open when she grabbed hold of my hair. It was in a ponytail but it still took forever to pry her fingers loose and as soon as I had done so, she spit in my face and grabbed hold of my arm, raking her fingers across my skin.
By this time, other staff had heard her screaming and shown up to help me.
I hosted a baby shower that weekend and kept having to explain to people over pastel mints and cupcakes why I looked like I’d been attacked by the world’s most vicious cat.
This was finally enough for me to file a complaint and earn a relocation to a different ward with a whole new set of drama. A couple months later I applied for my current position and was promoted to what everyone calls “Mount Olympus.” I never had any sort of sweet revenge over the psych nurses, unless you count the revenge of being able to happily move on with your life. Sandy was eventually fired for giving half a dozen patients the wrong medication but I still see Lily from time to time and take a peculiar sort of pleasure from having extended eye contact with her.
The rumors never really went away, though they got more interesting: Did you know I’m an Israeli MOSSAD agent? It’s true, people say so. The slut rumor wasn’t helped by the fact that my naked photos made the rounds at work but it was never worth the effort to defend myself. That was… until I had to be cross-examined about it while under oath.
Have you ever been under the authority of someone who was obviously incompetent? Has a coworker or boss intentionally sabotaged you? What sort of reputation have you been wrongly given?
*I have never heard of an employee being raped in a psych hospital, Sandy was a crackhead.
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