If I told you smiling helps you live longer, would you believe me? Well you…
You “Worked” at Sheppard Pratt?
The next time you take a year off from college, spend it in a psychiatric hospital.
It was the B.E.S.T. experience of my life.
No question about it. Still. To this day.
After my second year of college, I was in need of a break. I had arrived at school so excited to proclaim myself pre-law, but once there I was really drawn more to social sciences and psychology. Back home, I had volunteered in hospitals (anyone need a Candy Striper or Pinkie uniform?) and I liked the medical environment. So after my fourth semester of college, I left school, came back to Baltimore and got a job at the most beautiful psychiatric hospital around these parts, Sheppard Pratt.
Zelda Fitzgerald had received treatment at Sheppard Pratt in the 1930’s after she had a nervous breakdown. It was easy to imagine her writing on the beautiful lawn at the hospital or greeting F. Scott on a Sunday. It was really beautiful.
And I was so excited to be there every day, learning how people with messed up heads got them fixed.
There were mental health histories on both sides of my family and I was already dealing with my own very challenging brain. I was on a mission to find my own sanity and to become the healthiest version of myself, so a world-famous psychiatric institution was the perfect place to be.
At first, I worked on units that housed adults with long term stays. But once I had a good amount of training and experience under my belt, I was allowed to work on the short term units also. The short term units were busier with admissions and patients were more likely to be in crisis. I was young and really energetic and I ended up working double shifts a lot of the time so I could stay there with patients who required an extra set of eyes or some one-on-one company.
Often, on the short term units, patients would present themselves in urgent situations that were dramatic or complicated. But there were also a good number of quiet and planned admissions. Sometimes the patient was ordered to the hospital by a court or brought in by police. That seemed to usually happen at a shift change and I could always be talked into working longer, Before long I was working all the shifts, driving home at crazy hours, feeling happy that I had actually helped someone.
Working in a mental institution turned me into a mental health advocate – and made me realize I could be a disability lawyer.
You can insert all of your mental institution lawyer jokes here. I have heard all of them, I believe. : )
But honestly, from that job, I learned to see crisis so clearly. I could look at a situation – someone else’s situation – and clearly see how many fires there were and which ones needed to be put out first.
I could see what was required in order to resolve the instant problem. And what fix would likely prevent future problems.
And I was learning how to turn situations around after they were fixed.
It was the most amazing job ever for a future professional problem-solver.
But the really great part of that job happened when I was offered the opportunity to work on the thirty-day inpatient drug and alcohol unit. I got a ton of training and then I got the most unbelievable job perk in the world. I got to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings while I was getting paid.
I’m telling you. I know how to get paid for doing fun things. You must look into it.
Anyway, for the next several years, I went to once- or twice-daily twelve-step programs and learned how to live in recovery.
Because even though I wasn’t an addict or alcoholic, I was in pain,
And sitting in a room with other people who could feel my pain was the most comforting thing I had ever experienced. After a while, some people came to know a little about me. They knew I had visions of crashing my car and jumping off a roof. And they were more wild and crazy and experienced in life than I was, so my horrible head movies didn’t freak them out. I could talk about life in my head being messy and I could make jokes about the mess without worrying about scaring anyone.
Let’s just say that I became the biggest fan of support groups. And I just wished there were more rooms like that for people like me who needed a place to go and dump it out in exchange for hugs instead of taking it home and letting it bully me into dangerous behavior or the frozen paralysis of fear.
That job was amazing.
It was a job where everyone, every person you talked to, was dealing with something.
So everyone got hugs.
Everyone got “how are you doing?”
Everybody got the knowing nods and the understanding smiles.
Everyone appreciated that someone else might be in their own personal hell that day, so most people were trying not to make anyone’s day worse.
And a lot of people were really trying to make the days better for everyone.
I loved that world.
But you can’t spend your life in a psychiatric hospital and twelve-step programs.
Sometimes you have to get out there and become a cartoonist.
Yeah, I don’t know how that happened either.
But there is a connection and we’ll talk about it another day.
In the meantime, ask people how they’re doing.
And find a support group.
Or an environment where you can give others some of those knowing nods and understanding smiles they need so bad.
I’m on a journey to find that environment again.
xoxoxo, dee (and bella)
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