The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 68 Memorial Psychiatric Hospital

     Although I continuously coached the high-school track team, I took another teaching position, this time at Memorial Psychiatric Hospital. They needed an English teacher for the adolescents hospitalized for extended periods. The kids got inpatient treatment, but also went to in-hospital classes so they wouldn’t fall behind in school. I liked the idea of working in a psych hospital like Kesey had when he was inspired to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

     My job description was to inspire the kids to enjoy reading and writing; there was no curriculum other than what I imagined. My classes ranged from one to fourteen students. Frequently a psych tech interrupted my lessons to pull a patient out for therapy, or a nurse came to administer medication. It irritated me at first; what could be more important than great literature? But The Hobbit was too far up their hierarchy of needs at that point in their lives. Who needed Bilbo when they wasted away from anorexia, cut hash marks on the inside of their forearms, were infatuated with guns, ropes, pain pills, and played “The Fainting Game,” where they choked each other out for the euphoric rush?

     We had a population of gang bangers, addicts, depressives, and neurotics. I enjoyed working with those kids; it was more intimate than the large classes I had at Manzano High. With fewer students, I built closer relationships with the kids. Having a positive relationship with at least one caring adult made a big difference in their behavior. It was profound how little psychopathology manifested once they had a trusted person, a safe place, and a set schedule. In my practice today, I often see previously mentally healthy people who have reacted to social stressors and developed criteria for mental illness. I buildup the healthy part of the person, encourage environmental and social adjustments, and usually the person improves. Which makes me wonder: is it truly unreasonable to go “crazy” when placed in a dysfunctional or untenable environment? It seems not only unfair, but also dangerous, that sensitivity is punished and insensitivity is reinforced. I know plenty of insensitive people who seem just fine. I guess it’s the rest of us who aren’t fine with them.

     One gangbanger was a large, well-built sixteen-year-old boy. He had impulse control disorder, a crappy childhood, and an even worse environment. I’ll call him “Bibbit,” after the stuttering boy, Billy Bibbit, in Cuckoo’s Nest, which is ironic because he was opposite that. While he was still up on the locked unit, he attacked other patients whenever they said something critical of him in group. I understood how nice it’d be to smack our critics right in the puss; but something more reasonable in me understood that society had to tamp down the violence, or at least medicate those defensive and violent impulses. After the psychiatrist found a cocktail that sedated the boy enough to stop trying to kill people we integrated Bibbit into our classrooms. He slumped at his desk in a medicated stupor, eyelids half closed, a long strand of drool connecting his lower lip to his book. With more tweaks to his meds, his personality came forward, and Bibbit became a pleasant teen. He ran after the other kids during games of Ultimate Frisbee like an overgrown black lab puppy. But I wasn’t able to teach him much because he was still fairly snowed on meds, plus he had low intelligence, and on his most lucid day he read at the third-grade level. But he never disrupted my class. Oh, sure, the psych techs and nurses loitered outside my French door, but they weren’t necessary. See how psychotropic medication worked? See how a safe and nurturing environment helped? See how strong, multidisciplinary interventions and strong relationships helped?

     For two years the hospitalized kids passed through my classroom: The idle rich kids who decided to dabble in drugs and burglary; the gangbangers who were given a choice between a psych hospital or juvy; the depressed kids whose faces looked like smudged charcoal drawings; the neurotics who became overwhelmed when asked to read aloud in class, laid their heads on their desktops, and sobbed into the crooks of their arms. A few of the students were brilliant, and other than boredom and acting out inappropriately, they really didn’t need to be in the hospital at all. They needed to learn how to cope in a society that ran slower than their minds. I played chess with those kids, and taught them how to devour books instead of other people.

     There were almost no discipline problems in my classroom, but some chose not to behave, and others couldn’t help themselves. Usually it was the addicts and gangbangers who, once they got used to their new environment, either ran away or stirred up trouble. None of them believed they needed hospitalization. To them it was just a nicer jail, like Randal Patrick McMurphy thought. I had the power of the pen, and after each class, I rated each kid on a behavioral sheet. It was very effective because it influenced their privileges and discharge date.

     But I also had the power of our relationship. I discovered I had an aptitude to connect and earn our patients’ trust. All I had to do was sincerely listen and care, like being a bartender. It felt more authentic to me, less like a rigid chameleon like I had to be while teaching in public school. For many of those patients it was not only the first trusting student/teacher relationship they’d ever experienced, but the first trusting relationship with any adult. I enjoyed the emotional intimacy even more than teaching, and observing what psychologists did at the hospital made me want to become one too.

     The scores of students I came into contact with at Manzano and Memorial helped me put my own life in perspective. The poor kids from Manzano with so many overwhelmed and unconcerned parents, and the kids in the hospital with psychopathology and dysfunctional families and hostile environments, had bigger problems than buying the Cook’s Special letter jacket or never taking state in the two-mile. That didn’t mean that my problems didn’t matter; they certainly mattered to me. And I did indeed become more grateful of what I had and what I’d been through. There’d always been enough, and there’d always been loving concerned people in my life (not necessarily the people who should’ve been there, but you get what you get, right, and then someone unexpected often steps in: a coach, a teacher, a cross country team). I realized that I didn’t have to be the best at anything, just my best self with those kids, and always seek to actualize my potential. That’s what I told the kids. I’d become something of a mentor by then, which was odd for me because it was difficult for me to see myself as someone to give anyone advice. Sometimes it still is. “Fake it ‘til you make it” is pretty good advice.

     On my last day at Memorial there was an awards ceremony. I gave my English students pencils with pithy literary sayings on them. To my history students I gave camouflage pencils. At the end of the evening I received a standing ovation. It was a good ending—it felt like denouement to my teaching career—and I felt ready to move on to a new incarnation, preferably one that looked more like George Plimpton and less like Walter Mitty.

     I kept in touch with the math teacher. She said that after Bibbit was discharged, he returned to the ‘hood and went off his meds. A couple local gangsters raped his girlfriend, so Bibbit trolled until he found two guys on the sidewalk and beat them to death with a baseball bat. Turned out he killed the wrong two guys. Since he was eighteen by then, they sent him to the Santa Fe Penitentiary. Inadequately medicated, he attacked a convict, took the wrong end of a shiv, and died.

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