I close the door behind normality and enter the children’s psychiatric ward I work in. A young girl who came in ten days ago after a suicide attempt says hello as she passes me by in the corridor. So she started to speak – that’s great, I think.
It won’t be long, though, till I get discouraged and unable to feel happy about my patients’ small steps. It happens every day: I come to work geared up to help patients fight their illnesses – which I always wanted to do – and then I get disgusted by them. The children start to scream like they’re mad, they fight, cut their wrists with pieces of broken mirror, it turns out one has been molesting some of the younger ones.
They’re mad, I say to myself. They’re ill, the other nurses say to each other. We can’t do anything is what we all want to tell ourselves.
I must measure the blood pressure of those with psychosomatic illnesses, ask everyone if they’ve pooped, administer the pills – look into those unhappy faces as they take the cups from me… They look particularly unhappy in the morning, maybe it’s the anticipation of another day here, or maybe it’s compassion that makes me see them this way at this time of day.
I’ve been watching patients for the last seventeen years, and although all of them have had different personalities and different illnesses made them suffer in different ways, I’ve learnt that after some time spent here, there is one thing all of them have in common: shame. Somehow, some way, the shame of being treated in a psychiatric ward infiltrates and slowly poisons the life of each of these children.
It might be through their parents, who can’t keep the shame to themselves and eventually spill one cruel comment or another when visiting. It might be school, or the media. Or it might be us, the staff, who sometimes also fail to hide our reluctance to the mentally ill, and let it come out in monstrous ways.
A colleague is shouting at someone angrily. I’m sitting in the nurses’ room filling in reports. Are you out of your mind!? she shouts at a child but I’m not coming out to see which one it is. Right now, I want to shut myself out from it – so, filling in reports. The colleague will come in a while to tell me what the child’s done, anyway.
All of us, I suspect, have some attitude issues. I actually have to fight: fight with my latent aversion to those children whose long-term neglect, deconstructed personalities, unhealthy notions of their own relations to others, often show in appalling acts of self-harm or violence.
This is why when the door to normality closes, I feel like I’m walking inwards… not into the ward, but onto a battlefield. My own private battlefield where my fists are my weapons, and I clench them not to use them against anyone, but to stop the feeling of sickness.
Around noon, it comes in a flood. The patients go to dinner, and I watch over them. Some of them scream they’re not hungry, some throw food on the floor and then step on it. Once a boy with Tourette’s approached me with a fork in hand and said he’d stick it in my eye if I don’t call for his parents. His parents had stopped visiting a week and a half before, saying they’d come back for him when we’ve fixed him. Just like the little boy, I felt as enraged, I felt helpless, I felt sick.
Today, sickness lets itself be felt physically. There’s gravy for dinner, and one of the anorectics is smearing it over the edges of her plate to have less of it to actually eat. I stifle my disgust and tell her to stop, but she’ll be doing that again when I avert my eyes – which I’m doing without delay, thinking again that I can’t do anything.
There’s some peace after dinner, usually. Some of the “slowed down” – either due to depression or the strong sedatives we use on them – even go have a nap. Sometimes, one or two of them refuse to take their afternoon pills, but they give up rebellion as soon as one of the staff mentions the doctor who we can always go and fetch, and he’ll come with a big dose of sedative to be injected intramuscularly.
But generally, I have time to think about how sick I am of it but need to carry on, and how this job isn’t for me, nor am I good enough for it, but what can I do now, and how relieved I am to think it’s only three hours more to go home, but then again I’d come here for another round the following day.
My mind is sleeping after I’ve gone through the same thoughts for the fourth, maybe fifth time this afternoon. But somebody wakes me: it’s this girl who, ten days ago, swallowed too much pills but it still wasn’t enough. She’s standing at the nurses’ room’s entrance, leaning on the doorframe. She looks like she’s come to speak to me. Speak to me?…
She didn’t want to do it, she says. At the moment, she wanted to just go quietly, but now after she’s caused so much pain to her parents, the only thing she wants is to curl up in the hospital bed, drown in shame and never go home. But she wants to live, she assures me, she wants to live now.
It’s fascinating, the mixture of emotions children attempting a suicide get thrown into: there’s sadness in plenty, there is anger, but then there is the shame, and something like repentance – those promises they make that they will want to live when they only get better – and more sadness, and maybe… It might be only on my part, but maybe there is also hope that deep inside, there is a will to live.
The girl is crying. Says she couldn’t bear it any longer, so she came to speak to me. But I can’t say anything. I’m turning my face slightly away so that she doesn’t see I’m crying, too. I would hold her but I’m not allowed to. For the millionth of times, something came upon me in a flood.