When eating didn’t suffice to stuff my anger, depression helped. I’ve lost count of how many. But after Raymond left, I managed to survive, surprising myself. I finished that last year of nursing school, passed the State Boards, and landed a job as a newly registered nurse at a psych unit in a nearby town—all without him.
It was night shift, and it fit me well, the quietness. But the next morning, even with thick homemade curtains blocking out the sun, I slept only three hours tops. Maybe I could have lasted longer if Louise hadn’t become the new supervisor. She worked days at a hospital in a neighboring town. That psych unit was somewhat more progressive than ours because they had recently incorporated ECT or electroconvulsive therapy, not something I felt in favor of. It scared me. I knew only the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and what it did to the boisterous character Jack Nicholson played.
Louise introduced herself. The interrogation began.
“I work at Springtown,” she said, puffed up with pride as she added, “and we’ve instituted ECT.”
She immediately noticed my skepticism, not the expected response, as she bragged about the new equipment at her unit.
“You’re not in favor of it?” she asked, already on the attack after I frowned, the edge in her voice pointedly sharp.
I raised a white flag, suddenly fearful of her hackled, compact body, which seemed to have curled in on itself like a porcupine ready to throw a quill.
“I really don’t know much about it,” I answered, backing down too late.
I didn’t want to make an enemy of my new supervisor but the damage had been done, not by my words but with body language.
She lunged into me. “For a nurse, you ought to know better,” she lectured.
I cringed, quietly looking at her, moving back slightly. I didn’t like her or her banty hen stature—tough, small, and overly proud. The way she carried her body, a defense in itself. Things between us didn’t improve.
Her presence made some of the patients uncomfortable too; the worst acting out occurred after she started. One patient bit her and pulled her hair before the three of us could pull her off, the Psych Tech, me, and the security guard, hands tangled so thickly into Louise’s scalp that a clump of hair came out. The smile I must have felt, had I been connected to my humanly emotions, stayed hidden. I had been taught to be ashamed, but there had to be a smile swimming around inside somewhere!
When speaking up in any way but meek or dutiful as a child, Mom contained me. She had to, instinctively, without premeditation; she didn’t think that deeply about things to have controlled me consciously. She had to silence me in order to protect the family’s image of goodness. I had to be manipulated, and much more so than brothers, because I held the secret to their sins. They wouldn’t expose the truth. She needed to work diligently in shaping me. It’s not hard to silence a child. Just threaten to abandon, not in words but in actions. Do this, you’ll be loved. Don’t and you’re not.
The message hit home over time. It took repeated lashings of, “You should be ashamed of yourself” to brand that scar into me, burned so expertly into the template of who I was to become that shame replaced wholeness like a headstone. A death knell, part of me incinerated into ash, blown away to the far winds forever gone.
A natural reaction to Louise’s hair being pulled, only days after her lecture, would have been satisfaction. Why not stifle a smile and forgive my human frailties? Life’s little justices need to be savored, even if guiltily. But I had been trained to feel shame, not pleasure. The sweet guilty reward of her receiving some payback went unacknowledged.
Most nights Joel worked with me. Joel was a Psych Tech, but also my friend. He had been the one to show me the ropes from the start.
“Here, use my hand!” he volunteered, when I needed three successful attempts before drawing blood from patients.
And during my first assessment of someone in crisis brought into the hospital’s emergency room, Joel was there waiting, staying just long enough to tell me, “You can do it!” beaming with assurance.
It took only once, someone who believed in me. After that, I excelled at assessing patients in crisis.
Two RNs were always on duty, even overnight, one as charge nurse, one as PAO, or Psychiatric Assessment Officer. If a crisis arose on the floor, the charge nurse handled it, which meant giving a calming injection in the butt. No wonder no patient took one willingly. They had to be held down by staff, including the security guard who came running from another part of the hospital. If a crisis arose in the emergency room, the PAO assessed the patient, then woke up the psychiatrist on-call at home to relay the assessment and determine whether to admit or not.
One evening, Louise said, “I’m going out to my van to sleep a few hours. I had a hectic day at Springtown. You wouldn’t believe what a day! Make sure you wake me an hour before day shift arrives or if a call comes in the ER.”
Assigned charge nurse that night, I thought, “Are you kidding?” but knew already not to cross her. Nodding my head in agreement, I looked at her steadily, feeling sick to my stomach at her audacity and complete lack of character. My first impressions of her of a cocky, bold rooster dropped to that of a fat, self-serving slug.
Joel, a more agreeable sort than me, said, “Sure,” but gazed at me with a tweak of the eyebrow that said, “Wow, can you believe it?”
Joel went out later to wake her and she chastised us both for waiting too long. She could sink no lower in my estimation, but I never reported her. I should have, but I didn’t know how. I could advocate for my kids, but not myself.
Weeks later, she accused me of being insubordinate and recorded a curt message I had left when I could not fill in for someone who had called in sick. She gathered evidence, tidbits of my disrespect. I did not realize how negatively I had affected her.
More because of my inability to sleep than Louise, I decided to leave the job and put in my two weeks’ notice. Louise arranged an exit meeting with her and Mary Ann, the superior to us both. I guess Louise needed her say, and I knew no better than to do what I was told, so attended it. Louise spewed out a list of complaints, turning the ‘exit’ meeting into something quite different. I needed to agree to several demands if I wanted to stay. But I had already decided to leave, so it made no sense, and I walked out confused about what had just happened. Though churning inside, I remained disturbingly quiet.
Because Louise had orchestrated the entire meeting without so much as a peep out of me, I became a puppet used to quell her need for vindication. Did her hate for me arise because I couldn’t be controlled, or because I looked beneath the person she attempted to portray and saw the real person? I left the meeting and the job dazed. I never said what needed to be said: “How can I respect her when she goes out to her van to sleep?”
It was the same hand that wove its death thread through my family, the needle sewn through my soul. Blame and shame, all mine, and only mine. What happened in that meeting felt familiar. And so in life, the role given to me as a child followed like a dark shadow, tamping down my spirit without mercy or justice. Louise was rewarded with vengeful vindication, and my spirit became so villainously extinguished it would be hard to find and reignite. She was rid of her antagonist, besmirching me in the process. Meanwhile I took the pain deep inside where it festered into Christmas and over winter.
Spring came, but the usual uplift that accompanied it did not. I followed Samuel into the woods behind the garden. The day sparkled, cool, clear and sunny. But the swirling mass rocking in my gut darkened all splendor. Feelings agonized for expression with no release, locking me up completely as if I’d closed all the shutters. The only emotions able to leak out were sadness, tears, and seriousness, robotic and repetitive. I had shut down.
I tagged along behind him while he poked the ground with a stick, looking for the source of the wet earth, hoping to have a spring dug there. I felt desperate for relief from my pain, which made it hard to move, think, breathe, or smile.
“I don’t know what to do! I feel so bad,” I beseeched him once more; too many times to count over the endless winter months.
“Enjoy the day!” he answered.
Was that disgust in his voice, I wondered? I moved slowly away through the trees back toward the house. Why couldn’t I enjoy the day like he did? I knew I was in trouble; I had been there before, a depression so deep I needed help. Raymond. I needed him. Entering the house, I went upstairs and pulled out the drawer in the nightstand by my bed where I kept precious mementos, cards and letters. I shuffled through the papers and found the short list of names Raymond had given me, noticing the one circled.
After pressing Raymond who he recommended more highly than the others, he had replied with some reluctance, “Maybe Matt.”
Studying the neatly typed list, my hands smoothing the crease gently, caressing the white paper as if the movement brought Raymond closer, I placed it back in the drawer. As March melted into April and my birthday arrived, I called Matt’s number.
That began the first of six years of therapy with him. It took many months to stop crying, each week, each entire session. I just cried. Tears flowed down a face already hot, red, and blotchy. The salty tears scalded my scarlet cheeks. The internal lava crushed into silence by rocks of undeserved shame finally found release, erupting in a safe place, flowing each week till the next; tears of failure, loss, rejection, and grief for the voice that had been taken from me as a child.