Thank God for Somedays.
Thank God for Somedays.
A breaking news story flashes across the television screen, painting a picture that silences dinner conversation and steals everyone’s appetite like a thief in the night. A mother of three children gathered up her kids, locked them in a shed, doused it with gasoline, and lit it on fire — one of the children managed to survive, barely. Over the next few weeks, the trial is shown as media monsters eat the story alive and deliver it on a silver platter to the comfort of your own living room. Once the initial shock of the situation passes and the attention is brought to the fate of the mother, people begin to roll their eyes as they nonchalantly mutter, “Watch her plead insanity and get off without even having to put up a fight.” I used to be one of those people. Now, I know better.
Someday I hope the rest of the world can say that they know better too.
My first fieldwork rotation was one of the most amazing experiences my life has been blessed with. I was placed at the Arizona State Hospital in the mental health unit, forensics side. The people that reside on this unit have been legally sentenced here on a guilty except insane charge. They have committed crimes that are punishable by law, deemed ‘insane’ at the time of their crimes, and then sentenced to what would usually be a term in prison, but is now a term at the State Hospital.
I was a little hesitant to begin my fieldwork experience. I wasn’t as worried about my safety or well-being, or even what I was going to be exposed to throughout my rotation, as I was frightened for my reaction. I was worried I wasn’t going to want to help these people. That they were going to be manipulative monsters trying to pull the wool over my eyes and find my weaknesses. I was scared that I was going to have to force a connection, ignore their case histories, and struggle to provide decent service to these people that the news likes to refer to as criminally insane.
I actually meditated and wrote about my fears before beginning my rotation. I shared my concerns with a few close friends, while really struggling for an answer. I was worried that my lack of compassion was going to smack me in the face each and every day I spent there, almost as though I was worried that I, myself, was more of a monster than these people would ever be. Before I knew it, it was time to begin my rotation. An experience that would completely change my life.
A few people told me that I shouldn’t read any patient’s files until after I met them and got to know them as people first. They said that it would be easier to dissociate the crimes from the individuals, and easier to avoid preconceived notions or prior judgment before having a chance to really connect with them. I walked into a small craft room filled with 12 patients and a few therapists.
The patients were working on cutting out clay cacti to fire in the kiln and later paint to give to participants at a mental health walk that was coming up in a few months. Some of the other patients were working on writing elevator speeches that they could attach to the cacti explaining their thoughts and experiences about Arizona State in an attempt to break the stigma associated with mental illness.
None of them had three eyes or lizard scales, none of their heads were spinning around the axis of their neck, and no one tried to cast a spell on me for walking into the room. In fact, if anyone looked suspicious/nervous/out-of-place, it was probably me.
I was a little hesitant to approach these seemingly normal people, sipping coffee and rolling clay, working together to achieve a common goal. I observed from afar, until a young-looking girl with kind eyes and a warm smile asked me what my name was and if I was new. I approached her cautiously, and told her my name was Mac. The girl smiled, told me her name, and invited me to sit down.
Many of the other patients started telling me their names and asking me questions about my reason for visiting, where I was from, how I liked Arizona, etc. My nerves were calmed and I felt a lot more at ease. I spent the morning chatting and cutting out cacti (218 to be exact) with 12 new friends.
Once it was time for the group to conclude, we walked the patients back to their individual units to ensure their arrival. Each person smiled and said goodbye to me, most of them remembering my name. We walked on to a few of the units so I could have the chance to look inside, and I met a whole slew of new friends each time we walked into a room. Everyone was so friendly and warm, and while I made sure to follow all safety protocols and maintain a professional approach with boundaries and caution, I never felt unsafe or uneasy.
After the patients were successfully taken back to their units, my advisor asked if I wanted to spend a few hours reading over treatment plans. I did, so I found a place at an empty computer desk as my advisor logged me on to the system.
I’m not sure what I was expecting to read as I pulled up each new treatment file. I’m not sure if it was my sometimes naïve mindset that secretly hopes for the best in situations, and has a hard time believing the horror that so easily surrounds us, or perhaps my rather sheltered upbringing that shielded me from the darkness that others might call their everyday existence.
Whatever it was, I was in shock as I read through some of the crimes that had landed someone in the hospital. I felt my lungs constricting as I read about patients suffocating their family members, I felt my heart throb as my eyes scanned files describing loved ones being stabbed to death, and I felt a lump in my throat as I swallowed down feelings of anguish and sorrow when I learned of the reasoning and fear that so easily guided these crimes to be committed. I read the official diagnoses, the length of their sentences, and the treatments and intervention plans that were formulated to help these people function to the best of their abilities, ideally preparing them for reintegration into society someday.
I thought about the word someday. A day that we use so easily when we want to put off a task. “Oh, I’ll get around to it someday.” I realized that my someday was very different from their someday. My someday is a day that I intentionally put off, whether it be due to laziness, procrastination, or lack of interest, or perhaps all three.
My someday doesn’t occur because I am too busy living my life, or avoiding it, or simply letting moments escape me as I become preoccupied with another far-off day that lives within my mind. These people’s someday is a hope-filled word that they use sometimes just to make it through the day. Someday. A day where they can see their loved ones again, go to the grocery store to buy milk and bread, and drive a car. A day where they can choose where they live, go to the bathroom on their own, and spend Sunday mornings gardening in their backyard.
Someday, for me, can happen whenever I want it to.
Someday, for them, will probably never come.
I got in my car to leave that day, and I can’t really explain how I felt. I had told a few friends that I would call them on my 30-minute drive home to fill them in on my experience, but I left my phone on silent and turned my radio off. I looked out the window and watched cars pass by me as though each of them was the first vehicle I’d ever seen. I looked at an airplane overhead with wide-eyed innocence, and paused to smile at a woman waiting by a bus stop.
She didn’t smile back, but that was okay with me. I was just happy I had the chance to smile at her, and I know that all of my friends at Arizona State Hospital would have done the same.
I knew that I should start my fieldwork portfolio when I got home, but I had too many other things that my mind wanted me to do. I wanted to walk out to my car to get my favorite CD that my best friend made me before I moved. I wanted to listen to the words and dance in my room while singing at the top of my lungs. I wanted to go to the grocery store and walk up and down each aisle, pausing to read the labels of two different spaghetti sauces, and deciding to buy both, just because I could.
I wanted to go for a run outside, feel the blood pulsing through my veins and the energy radiating within my body as I crossed each stoplight finish line within my mind. I wanted to hug my friends, fall in love with a stranger, take a bubble bath, curl my hair, call my sister, and Skype my mom. I wanted to sleep in on the weekend, sip coffee between the sheets of my quilted heaven, and spend my afternoon dreaming about all of the things I would like to accomplish someday. I wanted to feel the euphoric energy buzzing through my body with the knowledge that I am capable of making any and all of these things happen. I wanted to hug my new friends at the hospital, as I explained this incredible feeling that they would never feel again.
I wanted to cry, because they already knew.
Thinking about all of the memories and feelings that my new friends would never get the chance to experience caused a giant floodgate to open, consuming me with fear and sadness and pain for all of the people contained behind those walls. The more I got to know them, the more my mind was flooded with these thoughts. In my opinion, fear is one of the worst feelings in the world. I think back to pigtails and Barbie doll days, hiding under my covers, scared for the monsters that lived in my closet.
As I continued to grow, I learned that the monsters in my closet didn’t stand a chance when compared to the monsters in my mind. Arizona State Hospital introduced me to a new breed of monsters that I didn’t even know existed. I watched my friends struggle with thoughts and voices and feelings that made it difficult to make it through the day. Unwanted visitors, residing in their minds, taunting and tempting them as each second continued to tick on. I looked into their eyes and saw angels and demons and struggles and pain. I saw regret and anger and sadness and, sometimes, I saw nothing at all.
Sometimes, I saw the shell of what used to be a beautiful person, a shell of the soul that couldn’t handle the darkness any longer.
Before my experience at the state hospital, I really had no understanding of mental illness and the depths it can reach. I was the kind of person that would hear about a crime, roll my eyes, and say, “Let me guess, they’re going to plea insanity?” It makes me shudder to think about how ignorant I used to be. After my experience at ASH, I can honestly say that mental illness is one of the most real, terrifying, tangible, consuming, debilitating diseases in the world.
Mental illness is a real disease that happens to real people, causing them to do things that only the mentally ill would be capable of doing. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that some of the decisions and actions made by someone with a mental illness are no different than a tremor seen in Parkinson’s, a paralysis seen in a spinal cord injury, or a tic seen in tardive dyskinesia.
Mental illness causes thoughts and feelings and actions that are completely out of the person’s control.
I also learned that with the right medication, treatment plans, support, and care, these people can return to fully functioning members of society. The worst part about this is that they usually don’t receive the above-described interventions until after a crime has been committed, or they are found to be danger to self/danger to others and admitted into a program.
More than these technical things, I learned that I love these people. I love these people for giving me a million reasons to want to change their lives, and I love them because, without even trying, they completely changed mine. I learned that it’s not my job to judge someone for their mistakes and actions, and that I could never fully understand the struggles someone had to endure and the roads they’ve traveled to lead them where they are today. I also learned that it’s a beautiful quality to try and understand anyway.
I learned that when we’re stripped to the core, we’re all the same. We all have needs and wants, we all have hopes and wishes and dreams. Sometimes, we’re all doing our best just to make it in this crazy world.
We can separate ourselves from people that think differently or err differently or love differently than we do, or we can hold hands and take on these storms together.
I learned to look at the storms I’ve encountered throughout my life in a completely different way. I used to only see them as storms, but now I see the rainbows that almost always followed.
I learned to stop worrying so much about the mistakes of my past and regrets of my future, and instead, spend my time planning and dreaming and wishing and hoping for all of the things that I’m going to do someday.
Thank God for Somedays.