It was back in 1988 and my second job in Nursing, the start of many. Dr. J was the medical director on the small psychiatric unit that housed adolescents with mainly substance abuse issues. He was a small charismatic, Asian man with a wiry smile. He didn’t think young people went through withdrawal nor did he ascribe to medication as treatment for children. He came from a behavioral perspective.
The unit was set up on a point system. The kids came in on level one with few privileges and left when they climbed to level 4. We searched their bags for contra-band taking most of their belongings that marked their individuality and independence. Their nirvana music, “inappropriate” t-shirts and cigarettes. There was a list of things that we would pull from their bags when they arrived on Level 1. When they got to level 2 they could smoke and when they achieved the upper levels they got to go home for weekend visits and then would eventually leave.
They came from middle and upper middle class families. They were hospitalized for their uncontrollable incorrigible behavior at home. I do remember a few of them distinctly. Anna, Claire, Jason and Mike. They had their own story behind the bravado. Mostly their stories had to do with adoption, divorce or abuse. Once in awhile you’d think that maybe they didn’t fall into any one of these categories but then you’d uncover that indeed they did.
Dr. J wasn’t concerned with coddling or showing pity rather getting them in shape to be in a good enough place to go home someday. He felt that a family approach was also needed to address their problems. There were weekly parent education and therapy groups that he and the head nurse LV and the social worker, Denise conducted. It was reputed that he, a married man and LV, a wife and mother of four children were having a relationship on the side but this cannot be verified. They did seem to disappear at lunchtime with great frequency and hold each other’s gaze a bit too long but I don’t really know and it didn’t matter much to me.
Many things happened in that short year back when I worked there. There was Lindsay’s suicide. the sweet, young mental health aide who was attending school at Brockport to get her master’s in social work degree, someone with a similar story as the kid's. And then, tragically a week after her death, Martha, a nurse’s son took his own life. The only clue him asking his mom why did Linsday choose such a violent way to die?
There was the 18-year old kid who was over 6 feet tall, who terrified us all. The other kids on the unit started to act out when he came to the unit. He was scary, with his white white hair and translucent blue eyes especially made glassy by the strong psychotropic med that he was on that did nothing to dull his frightening energetic presence. His diagnosis was antisocial personality disorder with psychotic features. He bragged to Denise, the social worker that he had murdered someone but they (the police) would never find the body so he couldn’t be held accountable. He had cut the victim up and then burned their body. She believed his story and when she told it to me, I also believed it. His initials were appropriately SS. He was adopted by a fundamentalist Christian family. He despised his mother.
I didn’t stay at the job long because it didn’t pay well. I approached the head of the hospital for a raise after I had completed my first year and when I was told no, I put in my resignation. We had just purchased our first house and money was tight. It was a for profit private hospital. There were perks, there was the morning coffee and the elaborate hot meal at lunch that was free to the staff.
There was Paul P. the motorcycle riding, tattooed man who was also in recovery. He was in his mid thirties, a decade older than me. He taught me about recovery, AA and how sobriety didn’t have shades of gray. It was an all or nothing business. He would talk about giving the kids an attitude adjustment. He worked in tandem with Dr. J to help break the kids down and get to the core of their problem; why they were there so it could be uncovered and healed. I don’t remember any of the kids going into placement when they left the unit. I do remember that a few returned shortly after they left.
There was a young woman named Sue who would eat all kinds of strange and healthy foods (stuff I probably eat today) and had all kinds of testing to uncover her maladies through methods such as kinesiology. I found her health techniques interesting, others found her strange. Then there was Lily, the black LPN and our candid discussions on race and prejudice. How she gave me the best advice that I have ever been given, “People only push you as far as you let them.”
A few months after I started on the unit, Dr. J threw a Christmas party at his and his wife’s home. I vaguely remember his wife being a small woman, deferential to him and I also remember a plaque on the wall with this poem about Risk on it. I stared at it for the longest time, loving its words and meaning. I must have told Dr. J because he later wrote it up and gave it to me. A friend looked it up and found the original writer and also the full version of the poem, Dr J's was missing the last verse.
Inspirational Poem: William Arthur Ward on “Risk”
To laugh is to risk appearing a fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental
To reach out to another is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self
To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow,
But he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live.
Chained by his servitude he is a slave who has forfeited all freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.
The pessimist complains about the wind;
The optimist expects it to change;
And the realist adjusts the sails.
William Arthur Ward