I remember my first week of working at a psychiatric hospital. I’d been through new employee orientation where I was told to never use the word “crazy” and to never wear jewelry in case someone tried to strangle me with it. I’d been shown all manner of improvised weapons—from plastic-spoons-turned-shiv to a noose made out of trash bags. A highly paid manager who worked in the administration and rarely set foot on the wards told me to keep my tattoos covered because I didn’t want to upset the patients who might hallucinate about them.
I wish I’d realized then that most all my coworkers are bat shit crazy.
Imagine my surprise when I showed up for my first shift, and no one tried to murder me. I was assigned to work in a ward full of women, most of whom were content to argue over TV channels, reminisce about potato salad, and complain that our bras didn’t have underwire. One woman named Dot was always looking for her purse or her keys, both of which had been locked away in a property room when she was admitted.
“Honey, I can’t seem to find my keys, and I’m about ready to go home.”
They never prepared us for these sorts of situations.
“Well, I’ll be sure to get them to you when you leave.”
“I think I’ll go home now, it’s been a fine party but I’m ready to get back on the road.”
I convinced her that it was too dark to travel and she should probably stay overnight. I showed her to the room where she’d already been living for two months.
“But there’s not a lock on the door, is it safe? Will somebody get me?”
“I won’t let anyone get you, I promise.
Dot was a kind woman with occasional moments of clarity, during which she would weep and tell you about the holes in her brain and how she couldn’t remember anything. It was hard to know which was worse—her being aware of what was happening, or the days when she was convinced it was 1963 and her mother had just died.
Other patients were a bit more frightening at the start—like Rocky. When she first saw me, she stood to the side of the room, glaring and periodically yelling offensive things in my direction. At least once every hour she’d accuse me of going into her room and stealing her stuff. Even though she was in her late 30s, she functioned like a little girl and had been at the hospital for almost 20 years. Though she was constantly making herself the center of attention, she rarely socialized and spent most of the day hidden in her room, making beaded necklaces. On my third night, she came barging out and walked right up to me.
“Hey, how you doin.”
“I’m tired,” I said, “but I like it here.”
She stared at me, unblinking. I waited for her to hit me or pull out an improvised weapon.
“Wanna play cards?”
I could barely nod as I followed her to a table, where she began removing stacks of playing cards from her numerous pockets. The deck was mismatched and duplicated as we began playing a nonsensical game of “War”, where I would diligently flip a card and then wait for her to declare whether or not I’d won. Every so often she’d get distracted from our game and yell at the wall.
“Don’t you do that, I see you!”
Just when I was letting my guard down, she grabbed my wrist and turned it over.
“Where’d you get that bracelet?”
Rocky stared at me like I was crazy.
“I can make stuff like that,” she said, “you want one of my necklaces?”
She carefully unraveled a single strand and wrestled it over her unkempt hair before placing it in the palm of my hand. I thanked her.
“You one crazy schoolmate,” she said.
I tried to think of a response to that but didn’t need one because she immediately stood up, walked to her room, slammed the door and started shouting incomprehensible things at the walls. This was something I’d get used to, especially after I met Louise– a woman who loved to wait until it was 2AM to start singing the Star Spangled Banner at top volume. She was also a huge fan of word salad.
“That person is trying to kiss me, at the end of the autobauhn, there won’t be anymore. Mayfair!”
Her voice reminded me of Bilbo Baggins, especially when she would sneak up and whisper in my ear.
“Can I have some juice? I’ll do you a favor!”
She was entirely harmless– though her roommate, Preacher Lady, probably didn’t agree. Preacher Lady was always carrying around a Guttenberg sized Bible and blessing everyone she passed. When she met Louise, she realized it would take more than just a blessing.
“Hallelujah!” she began screaming from their room, “Repent of your abomination! Legions of Angels are surrounding us!”
Louise seemed to like this new game and joined in for a rendition of “Blessed Be The Name,” but after a few verses, she decided to switch things up.
“Hey,” she said, “they want to take our picture!”
Preacher Lady looked around, politely confused.
“The walls!” Louise screamed, “The people in the walls!”
Louise pulled Preacher Lady up to a standing position.
“Here, now raise your arms like the shape of the cross.”
Preacher Lady did so, looking a bit uneasy.
“Now take a bow.”
They intertwined their arms and bowed deeply from the waist.
“Well, hallelujah, God bless us.”
“Hey,” Louise said, “Can you count to 100?”
“Can you count to 200?”
“Can you count to 300?”
“Can you count to 400?”
Preacher Lady was about to answer when Louise lunged forward, getting as close to her face as possible.
“How long do you think you’re gonna live?”
“What? Why would you ask me that?”
“Because I want you to live to be a thousand years old.”
Preacher Lady seemed to have had enough and wandered out of her room with a pillow. She complimented my red hair and then sat beside me with a puzzled expression.
“Do you remember where you were when Kennedy was assassinated?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t think I existed back then.”
“That must’ve been nice,” she said, “not existing.”
We sat there a moment longer until she patted my hand , went back to her room, and back to the hallelujah chorus.
Have you ever been afraid of something that turned out to be anything but scary? What misconceptions have you overcome? Tell me about the most surreal experience of your life.
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