Sister Golden Hair

August 2, 2011

I may have mentioned that I work in an in-patient psychiatric unit, or maybe I haven’t.  Either way, I do.  I’m there twice a week – on Tuesdays, I lead a drumming group, and on Fridays, the group topic varies depending on the demographic on the unit.  Those days are the days when I challenge myself the most as a music therapist, and I’m happier the rest of the week for it.

Two weeks ago, after the counselors couldn’t coerce anyone on the 20-bed unit into attending my drumming group, I practically begged the patients in the milieu to join, to no avail.  The staff was super apologetic, and I explained that it happens (though not often – this was the second time in over four years).  It happens, right?  Right.  My drumming group is one of the most popularly attended groups on the unit, so I decided that it was okay that no one was in the mood to drum that day, as the available options were a 22 year-old detoxing heroin addict who was rude to me, a psychotic frequent-flyer who wasn’t group appropriate, and a young girl with depression who told me she would prefer to watch the blank TV screen.  Yay.

As I was geting paid for being there,  I ended up striking up a conversation with my 60 year-old psychotic-frequent-flyer-not-group-appropriate-patient, J.  He called me Joanne (which isn’t my name, but I didn’t correct him) and informed me that he had lost all of his teeth (he, indeed, had no more teeth) though he didn’t remember how.  He then, in his usual hyper-religiosity, reminded me that he was an angel and that I was his spiritual kindness, and then absolved me of all my sins and reminisced with me about the first time we met.  Here’s how that went:

J: We’ve known each other a long time, Jo.  

Me: I know we have!  The first time I met you, you called me Sister Golden Hair, and then I went home and learned the song.

J: (smiling)  You know I love you, don’t cha?

Me: Thanks, J. I know.

J: Remember that time when you turned into a mermaid, and I threw a rope across the pond to help you across?  And then, when you got to the other side, you turned back into a human, but you didn’t have any clothes, so I got you some clothes, because I was the only one who gave a damn!

Me: (silence for probably 15 seconds) I sure wish I was still a mermaid…

That day made me remember why I wanted to be a therapist, and it also made me think about how we each have our own realities.  J’s is that he is alternately Jesus or Lucifer, or sometimes an archangel.  He is admitted to at least two psych units on the North Shore very frequently and often calls women “sister” or “mother” as if we are all in a religious sect together.  That is his reality.

I was told recently that J had a successful admission a few months ago.  He stayed on his meds and was as “clear as a bell” for about three days.  He was miserable.  He cried and cried about the ruin his life was in, and shortly thereafter went off the pills.  He is more comfortable being psychotic, and that’s just the way it is.

In the health care field, why are we always trying to change people’s realities?  Why can’t we meet people where they are, for real?

About a year ago, I worked with an 85 year-old with advancing dementia, but who also was aware of his cognitive changes.  He was admitted to a geri-psych unit I work at for having depression and suicidal ideation.  The psychiatrist dutifully prescribed him anti-depressants, waited until he adjusted to them, and sent him on his merry way.  I told a nurse later that week that I completely understood his reality.  He knows he’s slowly dying, and wants it to just be over with already.  Unfortunately, the nurse told me, if you actually want to die, you can’t tell other people that.  If you do, they admit you to a psych unit so you don’t feel that way anymore.  So much for reality.

Anyway, my reality has certainly changed over the years, and I’m glad I was allowed to marinate in it at each stage.  I probably wouldn’t be who I am today, able to have a seemingly normal conversation with someone who thinks that at one point, I was a mermaid.


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