People question why anyone would want to work at a psych hospital-- what they don't realize is that it's a place where you can live out your Disney Princess Dreams. Within the walls of the ward, you can be whoever or wherever you want.
When I began working with our young female patients, I was The Coolest Girl in School for the first time ever. I think I managed this by winning over Carmen--a pretty young thing who was undoubtedly the most likely to punch me in the face. We were both 24 years old and she honed in on me immediately, showing off her tattoo of the state bird. I asked if she had state pride and she began bragging about her hometown.
"Don't you guys have a military base?" I asked.
"Yeah," she said, "We drop lots of bombs. I dropped a bomb the other day, with my boyfriend, it was an Atom Bomb. It destroyed everything."
A few minutes later she was back, draped in a fur coat.
"I like your coat," I said.
"It's Polar Bear fur, want to touch it?"
I touched it.
"Polar Bear is my spirit animal."
"Polar Bears are really kind of scary."
"Yeah, I'd stay away."
"Me too, I'd stay in my igloo."
"Ha," she laughed, "Your igloo, that's funny. You know what? I'm in an igloo right now."
She walked over to another girl named Jessie, who'd had hiccups for about an hour. She crouched low and then pounced, "RAWRR! I'm a Polar Bear!"
Jesse just stared.
"Are you cured?" Carmen asked.
Jesse hiccupped. Nope.
She was glued to my side, I was her new BFF.
I want to be just like you," she said, though I couldn't imagine why, when she had the option of being a polar bear.
"I'm the singer from Fly Leaf, have you heard of us?"
"I write songs about my life... about what I've had to do for money... but I've put all of that behind me, my life is in God's hands now."
She immediately switched topics.
"You know Medicine Park?"
"Is that a TV show?"
"No, it's a neighborhood. I have a house there, James gave it to me. I live with Doris Day, she lives upstairs and I live downstairs."
I tried to think of an open-ended question about Doris Day, but then Grace walked up, agitated and frantic.
"Can I not eat?"
"Yes," I said cautiously, "You can..."
"Well then why did something bite me and tell me not to eat?"
I wondered if maybe I should bite her and give her permission to eat so that the voice in her head would be canceled out. But she was on to the next topic.
"They're trying to get me to have an Aunt, so I can stay in Heaven."
Carmen leaned in close to Grace's face.
"Well I want to stay in Hell," she said, "I'm safer here."
Grace smiled sweetly, then floated back to her bedroom. After an hour of unsuccessfully trying to sleep, she came back out with a look of glee.
"Can you imagine a bug and a spider kissing?"
I shook my head, unsure how to respond.
"Well, that's what just happened, inside my cast."
She lifted her bandaged arm.
"Oh, is it itching?"
Her smile faded. This was clearly not the right response.
"No, that's what actually just happened. In my cast."
Grace forgave my rudeness and sat down on the couch, turning to an empty chair beside her.
"I don't know what you look like, but I bet you look pretty. Where are the angels, the ones who took you?"
She paused, listening to a response only she could hear.
"Are you happy?" She asked the chair.
I sat on a table against the wall where I could see the entire room without moving.
A new girl shuffled past to throw away a cereal bowl. When she saw me she stopped dead in her tracks, a look of recognition on her face.
"What ever happened to you and Stephen?" she asked.
No one trained us on how to respond to these sorts of questions, so I decided to play it safe.
"Oh, you know... Nothing really."
"Seriously?" she asked.
"Yeah..." I said, supplementing with an apathetic shrug.
"That's too bad."
Another woman rolled by in a wheelchair and mumbled grumpily in my direction.
"Tables are for glasses, not for asses."
Who wouldn't want to work here?
After they went to bed I'd pull their charts and read about their past "incidents." There was the usual punching and clawing and throwing of beverages in faces, but there were also stories of abuse, neglect, and struggle. In one moment they seemed helpless and at the next turn they were more perceptive than you could imagine. Most of them had developed a set of survival skills the rest of us will never need. They knew in an instant whether you were the kind of person who bothered opening their door quietly while they slept or if you actually listened when they spoke.
It surprised me how natural it felt to care for them. It didn't matter if they'd killed their mothers or abandoned their children or run naked through the streets of the city-- if they were cold in bed and asked for an extra blanket, I would run for the cupboard so I could tuck it in around them.
I didn't end up with that job because it was my calling or a stepping-stone in my career path-- it was health insurance and the opportunity to write while they slept. But somewhere along the way I found myself caught up in the caring. They were like lost and confused orphans, and I was Fraulein Maria. They were my boxcar children, my Paddington Bear, and all I wanted was to scoop them up, give them a home, and convince them their stories did not have to end the way they'd started.