Two nine year old boys, inmates of the mental hospital where I have been sent for nursing school clinicals, stand at a counter, waiting for their meds. A male nurse hands each one a small paper cup with a handful of pills inside. The boy on the right puts his cup to his mouth, leans his head back and dumps the pills in. As he is doing so, he looks up and reads the name that has been written on the bottom of the cup. “Hey!” he says through the pills. He brings his head forward and spits the pills back into the cup. “These aren’t mine, they’re Derek’s!” “Well give them to Derek then!” retorts the nurse. The boys look at each other, shrug their shoulders and exchange cups. Bottoms up again; together this time. “Good for you for catching that,” says the nurse.
I mention the incident during the student group time at the end of the day. Our instructor is equivocal: the nurse did not see that the boy had the pills in his mouth. I glance at the other student who was with me at the time, but there is no spark. We remain silent. If their minds cannot accommodate reality, what shall I do? The nurse would have had to go back to the med room to get more pills. He might have even needed to make a note or waste the first set of meds. If the boys were willing to take them, why go to the trouble?
Psyc clinicals are not going well for me. The place was all wrong and it was not because of the patients. I had long ago trained myself to catch and hold the discordant details – things that happen in a moment which do not fit with the plans or ideals but yet are quietly built in to allow the machine to run smoothly. I pay attention because I believe that in these details are the signs and markings of sorrow and oppression. I hear in the distance the chainsaws clearing the rainforests. I see millions of acres of beetle-brown pines and elm skeletons – unmourned. I see busses full of zeks plying anonymously through capitol streets and government torturers making their way home to their wives in the evenings. I see transplant victims begging for death and being ignored. I see a trillion fires burning on the earth, consuming everything until nothing will be left. I want to protest, but what would be the point. It would be pedestrian versus tractor-trailer or worse than that.
Group session with the teenagers. Twenty or so kids sit side by side with their backs to the wall of the large alcove. Two counselors sit by the entrance to the area. The population has some diversity to it, but it is mostly underprivileged young men with anger problems and more privileged girls with self destructive tendencies. The girls are “cutters” – they cut on themselves with knives. It is not that they are trying to kill themselves or make suicidal gestures; they somehow find some kind of release through self mutilation. It is a new trend, but there are quite a lot of them.
I am assigned to the room with another nursing student to observe the session. The inmates speak amongst themselves while the counselors talk to each other at great length about their personal home improvement plans and projects. I lose respect for my fellow student as she jumps in to the conversation enthusiastically. The children are being ignored and they realize it. They seem quite accustomed to it.
I look around the room. I overhear a conversation. One girl says to another, “How much do you cut yourself?” The other girl proudly extends her arm, displaying scabby lateral lines from wrist to elbow. “That’s all?” says the first girl disdainfully. She presents her own forearms, showing off fewer, but much deeper scars. The first girl withers. I look back to the counselors and the other nursing student. They are talking about building decks. After another half an hour a writing assignment is given out – a share something about yourself kind of thing. The counselors continue their conversation for another 15 minutes and then we spend half an hour going around the room sharing. They put their hearts into it more than I expected.
Another group session on a different day:
The room is smaller. It is the next younger age group. The counselor is confrontational. It is mostly boys this time. One of the boys has been acting out in the hospital. He is warned that if he keeps it up he will be sent to prison. The counselor tells him that the guards will beat him at the prison. They will put him in a straight jacket and toss him in a van. The guards will beat him in the back of the van all the way to the prison. “But I will complain!” the boy protests. “Who do you think is gonna listen to you? You are a mental patient. The guards aren’t gonna say anything. Do you think they will believe you or the guards - huh?” Translation – if you see a cop, run. Very empowering.
I bring it up at the end of the day, but the other nursing student is full of admiration for the counselor. Someone has to set these kids straight or they will get themselves into even more trouble. I guess that was the thinking. I could not really follow.
To be continued.