Views of Our Selves
Both Sides of the Lock
by "Jane Doe"
The writer has asked that her name not be published. She is a freelance writer.
Shortly after college, armed with my bachelor's in psychology, I got a job as a "mental health therapy aide" in a New York state psychiatric facility. I'd wanted the job and had taken the state civil service exam to get it; I'd scored fairly high.
Nothing prepared me for the realities of working in a psychiatric institution. The intense stress, violence and general disregard for basic human dignity and respect were foreign to me but exhibited daily in the "hospital." Brute force, chemical and physical restraints were commonplace.
We all wore "panic alarm" devices. When the shit hit the fan, I'd push mine; an ear-piercing alarm would scream throughout the building and all available staff would come running. The violent, suicidal or "threatening" person would be physically restrained; dropped to the floor or bed and injected with Haldol or Thorazine.
TV and radio blaring, staff and patients both agitated: "zoo-like" describes the place well.
The main concern of management was the "chart." The chart was far more important than the patient. If it was written and documented in "the chart," it was gospel.
Our training in caring for the patients was basically just CPR, first aid and "behavior management techniques," or BMT -- a catchy phrase for physical restraint. Little was taught about how to console or actively attend to the psychological condition of the patient. Still, we held the keys, the power -- to let someone get a soda from a locked room, to let someone go out for a smoke, let them use the bathroom, unlock closets to get a towel or washcloth. We had the key to let them back into their own room to nap or be alone. It was our decision; not theirs. Yet despite all this, I felt I had a good degree of empathy for the patients.
How ironic that a decade later I became psychiatrically disabled myself -- with depression, agitation, panic attacks. When this and physical ailments caused me to be hospitalized, I myself felt the powerlessness, humiliation and fear that the patients under me must have felt. I heard staff refer to me as "the gall bladder." I had to beg staff for pain medication. They watched me use the toilet and discussed it with others.
I realized I'd known nothing of psychiatric disability -- the stigma, the powerlessness you feel when your own thoughts and perceptions torment you. For all I'd thought I'd been empathetic, I had myself behaved badly toward patients. It hadn't been intentional; it had come from ignorance.
This experience taught me an invaluable lesson: I am a person; you are a person. I am not "a gall bladder." You are not "the schizophrenic." I no longer carry the keys, but doors have been opened for me. New insight and gratitude fills my heart. The human experience is a shared one -- with or without a disability.
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