I spent a year working in a Psychiatric Hospital post graduate school, and I had seen and learned all that I will as a Mental Health Counselor. I remember my yoga teacher Sharon Gannon stating that we all do the best we can in each moment according to each moment. I am proud of myself to state that I did my best. I did good! I was in a full time position with the Adolescent Unit, working with children the ages of 12-17. I also worked (what I would consider) too often on the Adult Intensive Unit, with adults who were diagnosed psychotic. My job was to keep people calm, keep people alive, prevent violence, and promote stabilization. I was also a leader of daily psychotherapy and educational groups. Most patients came from the ER post suicide attempt, or transported from the police station.
I had to be always alert, always watch my back. I spent this year (2015-2016) in a biologically heightened chronic stress response. The things I have witnessed, and the stories I have heard, are more intense than any drama or horror movie from Hollywood. The memories of my shifts caused insomnia, adrenal burn out, and stress. Where was all of this suffering coming from? Why were these people and their challenges so hidden from the rest of society? Why do some people come into their lives with such abusive and horrible conditions? Karma???? I don’t know, but I do know from working with many of these kids, it was not right, not okay, not fair.
Deciding to leave was inspired by tragic events: a co-worker successfully committing suicide, and a 12-year-old girl eating a co-workers arm, which she literally chewed and swallowed during a psychotic break. Many of my co-workers had ER visits from being physically attacked by patients. I was shocked that these events actually became exciting gossip amongst hospital staff. What was going on with our mental health care system?!!! Our facility still incorporated locked restraints. It was the most horrifying thing I have ever witnessed! I was blessed to have never had to escort a patient to the “Quiet Room.” My coworkers protected me from this, and supported my strengths with teaching educational and psychotherapy groups, conflict resolutions, yoga/meditation, and de-escalation. I was the counselor that managed the rest of the group when violent patients were being escorted into restraint. But we all heard the screams and knew what was going down, a patient was getting strapped to a blue bed and given sedating meds via injection.
Some cases were rewarding, seeing a person recover and find motivations to continue their life. Hearing “Thank you Shannon” somehow justified the night cleaning up their vomit during a hell of a detox, or hanging out with them during a schizophrenic or manic episode, or placing a pillow behind their head that they were banging against a wall, or taping their sleeves down to prevent them from stabbing themselves with a pencil or scratching their skin off. I think the best “Thank you” was from the young man who attempted to hang himself. I discovered him in his room, called down to the nurses and my team for help and began to lift and work the sheet, which was triple wrapped, off from around his neck and his now blue unconscious head. After resuscitation the young man awoke swinging and punching injuring the medical staff working to revive him. Several hours later he was talking and smiling with a male counselor, and looked at me and said “Thank you.” The 16 year-old boy, was grateful he survived.
As much as I loved being there for these kids and to support them through what I hope will be the hardest time of their life, I had to take an inventory of how my life was going. My health was challenged with stress, insomnia, and haunted mind. I had to start asking myself very important questions. What would someone who loved herself do? Why was I putting myself in an environment that threatened my sense of physical and emotional safety? No matter how much I wished that the environment and other people could not disrupt my connection to my health, it did. It is all interconnected. Thus, why I think the turn around rate for jobs in the psychiatric hospital industry is so distinct. It is not the heart of the therapists that disrupts this, or even the tragedy of the patients lives. It is the systematic practice. It is not sustainable or healthy or supportive for positive health outcome for the patients.
I was successful in providing some integrative and natural health programs. I was allowed to teach patients yoga, breathing, and mindfulness exercises to assist them in finding peace. I found that I had to practice in this environment to keep my own connection. Patients would observe, question, and join in, so I decided to share and create scheduled educational groups. It truly had significant positive outcome.
However, after a year working in the psychiatric hospital I knew that it was never going to be a safe environment, and that if I were to move on now I would fully recover my health, and cool mind. I had figured out during my orientation trainings that this would have to be temporary, and I am surprised I was able to stay in this job for a year. I realized that I could not take on the whole of injustices. I wanted so badly to make everything alright for these kids, but I knew most would be released into the same triggering, sometimes abusive home environments. Was I able to offer them any hope, any life skills to create a better life for themselves, a better self esteem? I don’t know. All I could focus on is what I have learned about myself, trust myself, my intuitions and allow myself to move on.
I had learned so much, not just about the traits of different diagnosis, or the injustices of the world, or the poor quality of the mental health care in our country. I learned about myself!
I learned that I could be with people, right next to them in crisis. I didn’t tell them it was going to be alright or that they were safe, what the hell did I know, outside of the now moments I shared with them. I truly believe it was my understanding and practice of yoga, Reiki, and mindfulness meditation that kept me from ever getting beat up, bullied, or cursed out. When a patient became escalated, I stayed next to them, in silence, breathing deep, until they calmed down and they realized I wasn’t there to inflict control over them, I was there to be present, to help them out, and keep things calm. I would often shield myself with prayer. I would shield my patient, pray for peace, and to stay clear and grounded in hopes to inspire for them some sort of will and excitement for staying alive.
This world is beautiful, yes, but there are many disturbing things, and I could not deny, or reassure my patients’ freedom from it. All I could share was presence. This was the most humbling truth. It was all I could do. We were all locked up together during my hours on the clock. Literally had keys around my neck for every door. Every door locked. We were, and are all in this together.
I learned that fear was only as strong as I fed it. I learned that this didn’t have to be my reality. I could quit at any time. I could leave and find a more peaceful environment to practice therapy and be of service. I was torn with two conditionings at odds with each other; one, to be of service to these kids who were in true crises, and two, trusting my intuition and listening to my body. I had been walking a tight line. It was time for me to once again change my working environment. I learned my boundaries, and what I am willing to experience to enhance my understanding of human psychology, and it’s current treatments. I learned that there are other ways I can be of service, without having to follow any protocols, or be forced by the clock to stay in dangerous situations.
I made it through without any scars on my physical body (many in the mental health field don’t), and with time my memories have again become filled with beautiful things. Thanks and Praises! I learned that I truly am able to free myself at any moment. I learned that I listen to my body’s intuitions and warning signs. I learned that I am willing to disappoint others to be true to myself. I learned that I risk comfort for my purpose and dreams. I learned that I love myself incredibly.
It is very important for us to keep our eyes open and to question the reality that is being presented to us and to trust our own inner awareness. It is about not allowing the external reality to distort your internal reality, and your connection. If you start doubting yourself because your inner reality is not in sync with the outer reality, then the next question is, what is the reality of that reality, verses my inner reality? And what changes do I need to make to allow my external reality to support my inner reality?
I learned that it’s important to build the confidence to go more within. It is important to trust yourself, and listen to the signs of your body. If you are becoming unhealthy, it is time to change. IMMEDIATELY! So many people avoid change out of fear, fear for survival, etc., yet the irony is that if you don’t listen to your intuition, it will eventually and inevitably become too late. You will loose connection. Loose your health.
Learn from the environment. Know when it’s time to change. Don’t hold on in fear of new landscapes. And remember that the company you keep IS important!