After six to eight working days, I’d met nearly all of the patients. There were five men’s wards and one women’s ward. The wards traveled around the hospital individually, escorted by SHTA’s. Two or three wards at a time would meet in the rehab department for recreational or religious services. Many patients found religion while incarcerated. There were evangelists, fundamentalists, and self-styled ministers. It seemed like everyone attended every service, even the agnostics, atheists, and heretics. I counted three or four Jewish patients in the mix. Jewish services were the most ludicrous of all. Patients of every shape, size, color, and religious denomination wore yarmulkes (skullcaps) and pretended to partake while chanting a sort of pigeon Hebrew. For attending religious services, patients received extra rewards such as cigarettes, tea bags, and candy. They also hoped to earn a few brownie points with God and the forensic committee when they came up for evaluation.
The next several months were both enlightening and frustrating. It became obvious that I needed more clinical training specific to a forensic population. I attempted to reach out from the Rehab department and make allies on the treatment teams and in the cabinet. Unfortunately, protocol and position are your guides in public service. If you go directly to someone outside of your department on your own initiative, it can be misconstrued as a breach of faith or as a failure on the part of your supervisor to control her staff. Every employee generates truckloads of surplus paperwork and asks permission in writing for everything. I was rejected and Dolores was reprimanded.
My initial impression of the patients was that they were generally dull and apathetic, appearing to be motivated by bribery or extortion. They were bribed with cigarettes (nicotine), candy (sugar), tea bags (caffeine), and little packets of Sanka. These were rewards for good behaviors that I believed were ultimately harmful and destructive. Extortion was punishment for bad behaviors; no rewards, no activities, temporary isolation, or mandatory drug treatments. I was observing `Pavlov 101′ in practice.
There were two types of patients. Nearly all had committed acts of violence. Some were briefly there for psychiatric evaluation. Others were assigned for long term care by the court system because they were too unfit to stand trial or too disturbed to be in a normal prison setting. There were a few mass murderers and serial killers. In person, you’d never know it as they appeared meek, apathetic, and ordinary. I enjoyed chatting with them. As they grew to trust me, they revealed their hopes, dreams, fears, tales of intrigue, and horrors.
I was steadily earning the trust and respect of the rehab staff. Within a month, I’d read Dolores’s hands and was being asked by other staff members to share my insights and observations with them. The rehab staff was caring and well meaning. I observed unhealthy doses of neurosis combined with fear, paranoia, and overdeveloped senses of responsibility, obligation, and guilt. I tried my best to be constructive, helpful, and leave everyone feeling hopeful.
I suggested to Dolores that she practice saying “NO”. I advised Zandor not to react negatively to criticism, even if it was personal. I encouraged Billy (Skinny) to lighten up and see reality as it is and not how he wants it to be. I encouraged Luscious Lips to let go of his guilt, cultivate good habits (like controlling his indulgences), and begin to schedule activities to look forward to in his life. I applauded Barbara’s ability to maintain clear boundaries and thanked her for her honesty with herself and everyone else. I cheered Maya’s energy and enthusiasm. I let her know I supported whatever she wanted for herself. I encouraged Janice to see and express herself creatively.
My reputation as a hand analyst spread quickly. Soon, I was in the hospital director’s office reading her hands. Dr. Helga presented a caring and friendly demeanor, but after examining her hands for a couple of minutes, I was positive she was acting. She had the stiffest hands and fingers I’d ever felt, along with inwardly curving pinkie fingers, and a deep clear simian line in her dominant hand. Her knotty fingers and long index finger were well suited for detailed directorial work. I imagined her father had been a German SS or gestapo who ran a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. There was no place for emotion in Helga’s dysfunctional formative years. She was calculating, very ambitious, and could not tolerate disobedience. She ordered me to never discuss what I saw with anyone and told me in no uncertain terms to stay away from patient hands. I gained insight into the cabinet by reading several members directly and by observing others surreptitiously at meetings and in casual exchanges without their permission.
It took six months to learn the ropes while I generated and accumulated huge masses of paperwork and proposals. I was nearly ready to present my syllabus for prevocational classes to the cabinet when the hand of fate unexpectedly intervened and a quirky thing happened. Dolores accidentally caught Janice, the art therapist, in the art supply closet with her skirt up around her ears. She was dispensing her own personal method of emotional and physical therapy to one of the male patients. Janice was fired instantly.
Janice had self-destructed. I had lucked out. There was no art therapist and I was the only staff member qualified to fill in until another was hired. I knew quite a bit about art. That I didn’t know the first thing about art therapy or forensic psychology didn’t seem to faze anybody. I was thrilled to put everything aside to become the new substitute art therapist. I’d really get to meet the patients. Nearly all of them frequented the art room. It was their chance to play with art materials and express themselves creatively. They could sculpt with clay, draw and paint, make collages, write poetry, and play music.
The art room was small and private (14’X 14′). I was happy about that because in addition to having the potential for real intimacy, I was required to inventory every pencil, crayon, scissor, and even staple. These were all considered potentially dangerous weapons. Everything in Rehab was either bolted down or fastened together with special screws and nuts that required special tools to unfasten. Every precaution was taken to protect us from patients and patients from themselves and each other.
One very crazy patient who seriously creeped me out was James. Whenever James’s mother visited him, staff would find him mutilating his genitals with a paperclip, staple, or whatever could cause damage. James eventually died of AIDS after repeatedly letting the other male patients have their way with him sexually. I stayed far away from James’s hands, but do remember the ugly brown tobacco stain between the tips of his index and middle fingers from letting cigarettes burn down to ash without taking a puff.
Initially, I was cautious around patients. I tried to be helpful and spoke little except when spoken to. Sometimes, I’d sketch the patients. I was talented at drawing and sculpting and they began asking for artistic advice. I was happy to provide tips and tricks. It took over six months to locate a new art therapist. It was during this time that I would meet a dozen patients who would influence my destiny.
Stay tuned to meet the patients…
Author’s note: Unless you’ve read the first episode of ‘How I lost my Sanity’, you may not realize it’s fictional. I’ve written it in the same voice as my non-fiction writing, which might create confusion. As I break rules of grammar and syntax, along with a generous helping of political and social incorrectness, a dark light is being shed on the protagonist. I’ve been advised to produce a separate blog for fiction. One friend suggested I write in the third person. For now, I plan to keep posting episodes.
I’m using characters from movies to parody and give faces to the characters in my story. If my novella ever becomes popular, I’ll have to radically alter the images or get permission from the powers that be to use them. If you have any thoughts, ideas, feelings, suggestions, advice, or whatever about anything, please feel free to comment.