I was going to quit and I hadn’t even finished my master’s degree. I have made a huge mistake, I thought to myself, driving home from what is still in the top ten worst days of my life.
The receptionist smiled and directed me to the office where I would be interviewed. I was finished with the academic and classroom requirements for my master’s degree in counseling psychology, and it was time for me to do an internship in mental health. I was thrilled and naive, thinking I was going to help people! I was going to save the world.
As I got closer to the office of the clinical director, I heard the screaming, “Fuck you, you fat fucking bitch. I’ll kill you. I hate you. Fuuuuu…..” and then after a brief silence, the sobs started, heaving, choking sobs followed by a blood curdling scream.
“Get the FUCK off me you fucking assholes!”
The shriek sounded painful, but as I rounded the corner and walked into the office, I saw several staff up against a wall, restraining a young girl. She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, yet she was bucking like a bull in a rodeo, trying to throw the “goddamn asshole motherfuckers” off her body. Four good-sized adults were struggling to restrain her as she kicked, spit, cussed, and screamed. Pencils and pens were scattered about the floor and chairs were tipped on their sides.
The clinical director made eye contact with me and greeted me warmly, albeit briefly. She asked me to have a seat in a chair across the room and indicated that she would be with me as soon as possible.
“Stay away from her lady, she’s the fucking devil! Fuck her shit! All these fuckers are the devil. What are you looking at bitch? I’ll fucking kill you!” the wild girl being restrained screeched.
She glared at me, her eyes black with anger. I watched closely as each staff member holding her took special care to hold her firmly against the wall. They were quiet. Each of them breathing in and out slowly, looking away from the sweaty, curly haired teenager thrashing against them with all her strength. The only person making eye contact or speaking with the girl was the clinical director. I realized quickly that I needed to look away or I would continue to be the target of her threats and rants.
After what seemed like an hour, but was really only minutes, the girl called out the name of the clinical director and started sobbing again. Her sobs were peppered with apologies and declarations of admiration and love for others and powerful self-loathing. “I wish I was dead. Why don’t you people just let me die? I hate myself. I am so, so, so sorry. I love you guys so much and I’m so sorry. You should kill me. I am going to kill myself. I can’t live this way. I need it to stop.”
That went on for a few minutes. I wanted to cry. I wanted to go to her and wipe the beads of perspiration off her face and straighten her shirt, which was hiked up beneath her bra, her chubby belly exposed. I would later learn that she had gained a significant amount of weight in a very short time as a side effect of anti-psychotic medications, that she had attempted to kill herself by drinking anti-freeze, slitting her wrists, and overdosing on pills. I would learn that she was a well-loved and cared for daughter, and a favorite among the staff at the facility where I was interviewing.
Throughout the course of my internship, I would learn that she began exhibiting symptoms of explosive anger and labile mood as a toddler. That she had been in and out of hospitals, residential treatment facilities since grade school. I would meet her parents and see the exhausted and hopeless looks on their faces when they visited on weekends. I would be part of a team that scoured the campus looking for her late at night after she snuck out of her bed.
But that was later. As I sat quietly in a chair across the room, witnessing the overwhelming sadness, all I could think of was how completely unprepared I was for the career choice I had made. This girl wasn’t the first sad story I had heard about, but she was the first person I had seen literally “snap.” And that’s the only way I know how to explain it. The girl snapped. One minute she was violently thrashing and threatening, the next she was like a limp dishrag, whispering sweet words to the people she had just threatened to disembowel with sharpened pencils. I had just begun to breathe normally again when the girl shot a furious glance in my direction and demanded to know who I was. “Who is that stupid bitch?”
She raised her eyebrows and started giggling. As she threw her head back laughing, I felt my breath hitch again. Huh? And then she stopped laughing and calmly informed the clinical director that she would do whatever it would take to be dead before the sun came up in the morning, that nobody could stop her, that her life wasn’t worth living, that she would kill anyone who tried to stop her.
Surrounded by supportive staff, the girl continued to sit quietly on the floor and the clinical director excused herself and asked me to follow her out of the room. She apologized to me for the delay and we agreed to re-schedule my interview for the next day. Same time, same place. She shook my hand and as I was walking out the door, I heard her ask the receptionist to call 911. They would need EMS to come and transport the suicidal/homicidal girl to the hospital, as there really was no way to keep her safe in an open residential setting. I wasn’t sure if I would go back the next day. I got in the car and lit up a cigarette, turned on the radio and started to cry. Had I made the biggest mistake of my life? Could I do this kind of work every day?
I did go back the next day and subsequently became an intern at the facility. And like most of the staff there, I would come to love the dark, manic, wild-eyed teenage girl who loved animals, writing stories in her journal and cooking, and so many others like her. I would go on to work in these types of settings for seven years, determined to help people with chronic mental illness. I have sat in rooms with grieving parents, going bankrupt financially, physically and emotionally trying to help their mentally ill children.
I have looked into the eyes of a child I was restraining, listening to them scream and cry and beg, knowing that the vacant stares would turn into horrified recognition. They were scared for and of themselves. They asked me why. Why them? Why couldn’t they change, control themselves, be normal. “What is normal?” I would ask them. And they would answer sadly, “Not me. I’m crazy. I should never have been born.”
I’m so sad and scared about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Ever since the day I first decided to work with the chronically mentally ill, I’ve wondered about all of us. The patients, their families, my family, and myself. What would the future bring for all of us? Would I see the kids and families again? Would they find me on Facebook, look me up in the White Pages for nefarious reasons or to tell me that they were well? Which of these kids wound up in prison, institutions, dead or homeless? And what about the rest of the world? I worry about the helpers and the ones needing help. I think about it all the time.
Seeing the devastation at Sandy Hook reminds me of the hopeless feeling I had over the years when I worked as a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. I can’t tell you why mentally ill do what they do or why helpers like me keep going. The answers are so complex and impossible to generalize. The human mind is a mystery, despite the advances in medical technology and the vast improvements in medications, therapies and acquired knowledge available since my days actively working with severely mentally ill people.
What I do know is that Fred Rogers had it right when he said that in tough times it’s important to look for the helpers, to try to see the hope in any situation. Looking for the helpers is the right thing to do. Helpers are everywhere. Good people with good intentions who want to do right by others. And many of these good people are mentally ill helpers. We look to them to help us understand and learn to help them keep going, to help us help them.
It’s okay to feel whatever you are feeling right now and express your grief and anger and confusion. You are not alone. But it is also okay to feel happy about your life, to be glad you have your child to hold and kiss and hug. It is okay to take steps toward recovery and acceptance of this harsh reality facing us as humans, the reality that we are unpredictable. Every one of us has the potential for good and evil. It is truly the unknown, the darkness that we fear and those things are worthy of our fear. But we also must remember the powerful words of Albus Dumbledore –
“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light.”
So turn on YOUR light. Be a helper. Listen, learn and entertain the ideas and words of others in the coming weeks and months. Now is not the time to fight. Now is the time to be a helper and a healer.
Rest in Peace sweet victims of Sandy Hook. May you forever live in the light.