Screw Open Mic Thursday.
Kristin's comment made me realize that although you all think you know me through my writing, you don't.
Not at all. In fact, many of my closest friends don't know me as well as they think they do. Because I seldom talk about my life experiences, other than what has pertained to knitting.
So here's something you can read. I have never talked about this, never written about this part of my life, although I've referred to it briefly. It had an enormous influence on me. I metamorphosed from a child to an adult during this time.
This is a tale that I very seldom tell, partly because it was so long ago. But those years are still with me, as if it were just a few weeks ago, such was the profundity of the experience.
From 1973 until 1982, I worked as a psychiatric technician at the largest county mental institution in the country, with a patient population of almost 3,000. I was not quite 23 when I took the job, the only work I could find that would allow me to be with my children during the day while my husband worked.
I had lived a charmed childhood, with no family financial problems, everything I could want, loving and supportive parents, in a large house in an expensive town in New Jersey. Little had touched that life until my father died at 43. Two years later, I married because I was pregnant with my daughter Jenn. I was 18. All of a sudden, there was no money, no expensive clothes, no more fun times going to rock concerts, just hard work.
Working at the hospital was a real eye-opener for this spoiled brat. Built in the 1870s, it was a Dickensian maze of crumbling brick buildings with iron-barred windows, shrieking patients, and sometimes cruel employees, located in a 700-acre tract of lush parkland. Death, by suicide, from natural causes, and perhaps from other means, was a daily occurrence. I had never seen a dead body until I started on the med/surg ward, 3-11 shift.
By the time I transferred to the maximum security, I had prepared many souls for their final trip to the morgue. Death and suffering. We did what we could to help our patients with little kindnesses, whenever we had the chance. I would come home every night at midnight, exhausted but with a sense that I had done something good. Even if it were snitching an extra banana from the kitchen for one of my patients.
In the maximum security ward, Ward 35, which housed some 40 women, highly psychotic, often homicidal, I still found much in the way of humanity. No matter how off the wall the women were, they appreciated small things—an extra cigarette, more coffee, a birthday party. We tried our best because the county gave them little in the way of extras. And when I had to float off to Ward 39 because I was junior on the ward, the other employees shook their heads and said, “Well, Robbie, watch your back.”
Ward 39 was the place where those men and boys who had low intelligence and were also deemed psychotic were dumped. Yes, dumped. No Recreation therapy for them, no arts and crafts, no therapy of any kind. They were fed, clothed, and kept clean. The staff was amazing. They cared for these patients as if they were their own family. And far from being forgotten, many of the patients’ families came to visit every weekend.
When I was floated to Ward 39, it was generally to “special” a young man named Lenny. Lenny’s intelligence could not be measured but it was thought that he was mentally about the same age as a 6-month-old baby. Except that he was my age, 23.
Lenny was always in a straitjacket, for his own safety and that of the other patients. While this seems cruel, it was necessary. For Lenny was blind because he had pulled out both his eyes. And almost strangled another patient, as well as attacking staff.
At first, I was afraid of Lenny, knowing that he had enormous strength and could be difficult. Often, he would howl and rage, and could not be comforted. He had his own room, a cold, bare chamber with a white iron crib, in which he was housed. I would feed him, as he sat in a lotus position. I’d talk to him, sing to him, make noise. That seemed to quiet him sometimes. And sometimes not. When I sang, he would make noises and bang his feet on the mattress. Whether he enjoyed my singing, I would never know. But I figured it entertained me as well as him.
As time went on, I got to know Lenny’s moods and I stopped being afraid, although I respected his unpredictability. And I think he got to know me, too, at least the sound of my voice. I would usually work with him twice a week, when his regularly assigned staff member was off. After dinner, if I could find one of the guys to help me, we’d lift Lenny out of bed and put him in a wheelchair out in the dayroom. That was the sum total of Lenny’s change of scenery.
Finally, I asked the head nurse if we could maybe get Lenny out of the wheelchair and sit him on the floor. She said, “Sure, as long as you watch him carefully.” So out Lenny went, onto the floor with me. He’d sit there, rocking, but not yelling, quiet as a mouse. No one had ever heard Lenny say a word.
One day, while Lenny and I were sitting on the dayroom floor, I found a small toy car, a Big Wheels, I think, in my uniform pocket, probably one of Jenn’s toys that I had absentmindedly picked up from the floor on my way out to work. Lenny was sitting about 3 feet from me, rocking as usual.
“Hey, Lenny! Look what I’ve got!” I put the toy car on the floor and ran it towards him. He stopped rocking. I picked up the car again and revved it up so it would go further. Like I did with my kids, without thinking, I said, “One, two, three, GO!” And let the car scuttle across the floor.
I kept doing this for at least a half hour, mostly to entertain myself. Dopey? Sure. But it seemed to keep Lenny quiet.
It was getting close to bedtime. One more run and I’d put the car back in my pocket. “One, two, three…”
And Lenny said, “GO!”
Did he say that? I was stunned. Could it be? Did Lenny speak? I got one of the other staff and repeated the sequence. Once again, Lenny said, “GO!”
From then on, that was Lenny’s game. We’d chant “One, two, three” and Lenny would shout “GO!” His parents, who had never heard him speak, brought us toy cars. Every day, it was Lenny’s therapy to get down on the floor with one of the staff and play the Lenny Game.
Lenny never learned to say another word. He was still on Ward 39, playing the Lenny Game, when I left the hospital and went on to a career in publishing, my career in nursing finished due to a bad back. I could no longer lift heavy laundry bags, turn patients, or lift mattresses onto beds.
I will never forget Lenny. Ever. Of all my patients, he was the one I loved the best.