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Sunday, May 04, 2008

First Day on the Job

Just yesterday, I received an invitation to an interview with a local county, the position of "Intermittent Probation Officer." I am hoping this is the answer to my prayers as to what I am to do for money this summer, and considering the job has brought back memories of the work I did during my colllege years.

Just after my freshman year of college, I began a job at an adolescent psych hospital as a "Care Worker". My job was to work on whatever unit I was assigned, either as a "floater" between units or as a gofer for one, or possibly as the unit staff for the day/evening.

When I began, our first week involved, as you'd expect...paperwork. We sat in a classroom, learned about procedures, behavior plans, treatment plans, how to deal with lots of things, and of course, State-mandated things. Our group was a mix of new therapists, maintenance, security, and careworkers.

But during that week, we went on a tour of the facility. We were warned about certain residents...they liked to torture new staff and would do things for shock value, to test us. We had to figure out how to respond, and our response on that occasion might well determine the respect they would or would not have for us going forward.

Nice. But it was what it was...we knew we had entered the world of the Cuckoo's Nest.


So it set the stage for me to be singled out by the "Welcoming Committee". Jennifer saw our group coming and came forward from her spot at a picnic table outside the dorms, confronting the HR guy. He explained we were new employees. She appraised our group as we continued, and stepped directly in front of me, forcing me to stop. She reached toward me and began running her hands through my hair.

I was a bit taken aback, but we'd been warned about her, and I knew that reacting would be a bad thing. She only wanted to know what I would do. I knew her supervision level so decided that she was just going for that fabled "shock value" and stood my ground. When I didn't react she let me go after a short stare-down contest.

But that wasn't the last time I was to meet her..that particular patient was destined to be a special one for me.

The Real First Day

They always told us to be certain to bring a change of clothing to work, for we never knew what would happen or what kinds of things would end up covering us. It was best to be prepared. And so I was.

After our first classroom week, we were assigned to someone or a few people to train us in for the duration of two weeks. I learned how the unit was run, I learned the work of a "floater" and what to do on a crisis team; most floaters were assigned to a crisis team, which had two levels of response. The teams were called in on an emergency basis whenever extra hands were needed either to deal with a patient out of control or maybe several patients in need of additional direction. first day on the job, on my own, I was assigned to Peter. He was about 12, I think, a small 12 year old who had ADHD in the most extreme form. And that boy was not able to take medication for his condition due to another physical condition; all the treatments for ADHD would have killed him. It was fascinating; he was constantly moving or talking. When I first met him, he was being held down by a crisis team. This boy was assigned a "one to one" staff, not as in the sense for suicidal kids, but rather to protect him from himself and from other kids he ticked off regularly through his uncontrollable behavior.

I remember going into his room with him on his "time out" when he was released, and he had a pair of jeans in his hand. He flipped the jeans back and forth, constantly, talking a mile a minute. I remained silent, watching in amazement...I felt like I'd been transported into a psychiatric case study of ADHD, but I was watching the unedited video from the freeform "interview".

After awhile, the manager came in and said that he could go out to the pool if he wanted (they did everything they could to keep this kid busy.)

Well, Peter had been at the facility for a few years by that point, and he led me to the pool, wearing his trunks and t-shirt, flinging his towel back and forth just as he'd flung his jeans only a half hour before.


At the time, I was a certified Lifeguard, and had just completed my refresher the previous month. I felt pretty comfortable, as it were, taking Peter to the pool area. There was a rec staff, who was also a Lifeguard, on duty whenever the pool was open. We acknowledged each other, but Peter was my responsiblity so I followed him to the outdoor shower, he rinsed off obediently as he knew to do, set down his towel, and headed for the edge of the pool.

SILLY ME! There I was, with my charge, knowing that he KNEW the dimensions of the pool, trusting that he'd go to wherever he knew he could swim. So when he headed for the deep end, I thought nothing of it...that's what I do, too, and what many of the kids did.

It was a very warm day that June, and indeed, the pool was full of enthusiastic kids.

And then Peter jumped in and went under. And came up.

I had been a lifeguard for a few years by that point, and under my stand at the pool where I worked, kids just LOVED to pretend they were drowning. I had learned very quickly not to react immediately, but to was extremely obvious that they weren't really drowning. Because even if the kid was convincing enough, his or her (mostly his) friends weren't reacting properly, and their faking would get a quick reprimand from me to restrict themselves to the shallow end if they couldn't swim. So their faking always backfired on them.

But Peter..that was different. He came up...and flailed...and went under...and he came up again. I realized in shock that he really couldn't swim! That expression of terror cannot be contrived...the boy couldn't breathe!

I glanced around, having neglected to take proper assessment of this pool and where things were located. The hook was a distance away..I had nothing handy. I saw where Peter was in relation to the side, and felt that, as he was my responsiblity, I had to save him.

I didn't even yell for the lifeguard, who, at this point, did not see what was happening.

I didn't even take off my shoes...I jumped into the water, fully clothed (wearing jeans, nonetheless).

I had leapt out toward Peter, thinking to just grab onto the side and pull him in, but I had misjudged the distance. Peter was further out than my two-arms'-lengths and I couldn't reach the side by a couple of feet.

But I had hold of him and as I treaded water, I pulled him up. Of course he grabbed my arm and climed up it, seeking to get on top of me, panicking and terrified. As soon as he did that, I swam for the side, but he was pulling me down.

I had WAY underestimated the strength of this boy! It was all I could do to keep my head above water, and I couldn't disengage from him unless I dropped and went to the bottom...but I feared he would come with me.

Peter had a deathgrip on my left arm and shoulder...with my right arm, I flailed, reaching, kicking mightily to pull us BOTH to the side of the pool which shouldn't have been so far away!

Then I felt someone grab my hand and pull us in. I felt the weight on my left lift as Peter was also put in touch with the side of the pool, and he let go of me in favor of the solid, immovable contact.

I took a deep breath, thanking the 16 year old patient who had saved us, then launched myself out of the pool. I was jeans were dripping, my shoes were squishing, my glasses (I didn't have contacts at the time) were dripping with water and I was thankful to have them...but, friends and bangs DID NOT GET WET!


One of the other teen patients was helping Peter out of the pool, a few of the kids were literally applauding, and then I looked up to see...none other than...Jennifer.

Yup. The hair girl. The Welcoming Committee.

But this time was different. This girl, maybe 15 or 16 or so (I was 18 at the time) walked up to me, hugged me, and gave me her towel so I could squeeze some of the water out of my hair and wipe my face and glasses.

"Thank you." she said.

I hadn't saved her, and her "thanks" confused me. But I came to understand it upon reflection.


In training, they emphasized the value of trust; the kids had to trust us. They needed to know that we would keep them safe. Most of them had been abused, most very severely in all ways one can imagine and in some ways that defy imagination. They needed consistency, and they needed to learn to trust. If we could show them that we would, in fact, keep them safe, they would learn a great deal more and accept our leadership on the basis of trust. Trust went a long ways with these kids...and betrayal of trust was the worst that could happen. We had to be honest, we had to set clear boundaries, and in all that, we had to be consistent for it was mostly consistency that built trust.

And apparently, the occasional extraordinary incident.

At the pool that day, after I could see again and all was well, I had a little chat with Peter. (In the meantime, Jennifer and other patients were berating the Lifeguard, who hadn't even bothered to get up out of her lawnchair. Seriously. It may be a sin, but I didn't once try to stop those kids...they were right in their accusations and I figured that as I had to spend time fighting for two lives and it took the Patients to save us, she could battle for her own reputation. Besides...Peter was more important than an incompetant lifeguard.)

Peter admitted that he couldn't swim and had just not been paying attention. He wanted to continue swimming, he was fine, and would meekly stay in the shallow end. Fine. And I watched him like a hawk.

And then the Manager that evening happened to wander up to the pool to see how I was doing on my first solo day. Imagine his surprise when he saw me, standing at the side, dripping, my clothing clinging to me. He approached warily, somewhat amused, curious, and taken abak. I explained what had happened, and he asked if I had a change of clothing?

Yes, I did. He asked why I hadn't called for a replacement so I could change? I didn't know.

I had removed my radio when I jumped into the was a warm day so I wasn't chilled, and figured that when Peter wasn't my charge anymore I could change then. After all...I wasn't sure what would happen if I destroyed my second set of clothing while guarding this kid!


That day turned out to be an important one. As a Lifeguard, I broke EVERY RULE by jumping in to save Peter. In my defense though, I thought he was closer to the edge and it would be the quickest way to bring him in. And as I was a swimmer, getting wet wasn't a problem for me.

I was, ironically, reprimanded by the on-duty Lifeguard for that day, about a week later. She happened to be one of the managers for the Recreation department at the hospital, and decided to tell me everything I'd done wrong. I didn't disagree...she was objectively correct. Although I still question her lack of reaction. She literally didn't do a THING to help us. Granted, events like that tend to happen quickly, but she didn't even walk over to me when it was over to "process" the event. ("Process" is a huge word in psychology. Nothing should EVER happen without "Processing" it.)

Even though I did the technically wrong thing, it turned out to be the right thing to do. Sure, I got wet. Sure, I almost drowned with the boy I was trying to save, through my own misjudgment. But other things happened. Do I have to spell them out?

First, WE were saved by patients at that facility. Those we were there to serve, saved me and then my charge. That's a moment of humility. In that moment, those kids (I know there was more than one that pulled us to the side although I only clearly remember one) didn't care that I was Staff or that Peter was a pain in their derriers'...they saw an emergency and reacted because it was the right thing to do.

Secondly, Jennifer, the "Welcoming Committee" was present and a direct witness, and the one to present me with a hug and a towel. I was later to learn that this girl was one of those most in need of a sign of trust. She was "on her way out" towards a real life outside the walls, but had been severly willingness to jump into the water on my very first day as a fledgling was apparently very meaningful to her. She became one of my strongest allies. And never tried a "shock effect" on me again. In fact...every chance she got, she defended me.

I pray she is doing well.

My point is this: We can be trained. We can know the correct sequence, and we can know the proper procedures. But no one, not even we ourselves, know how we'll react in a given situation. Sometimes we go overboard and our actions are stupid and disastrous. Sometimes we go overboard and our actions are exactly correct. Or maybe it's just that God takes our actions and brings blessings out of them.

It's never about the events themselves. It's about what God draws out of the events. It's been awhile since I've thought back to that day, and althogh it was a tough one, I remember it with fondness, and remember the real names of all the patients involved. I loved my work there, I loved the kids, and even though I was only a couple years older than they, let me tell you, they were "my kids"! And you know...I think they still are.

We never know what's coming our way, we never know who we will affect or how, or how our own mistakes turn out to be...not mistakes. Just as those kids need to learn trust, so do we all need to learn to trust.

We are really not so different, are we?


Anonymous said...

Dear Adoro,

I really like reading your stories. Thank you for sharing them.


JR said...

No kidding, Katie. Who wouldn't love this blog. Action, adventure, and at the end, we learn a critical life lesson. It's kind of like a cross between Quantum Leap and Doogie Houser MD.

Hey Adoro, all of our family will be praying that you get the job. If by chance that county is our county, you might be working at the county building just a few blocks from our home. If that's the case, could hook up with DR and the kids for lunch occasionally. DR used to work there before the kids, and still has friends there.

But proximity isn't a big deal, since you already commute from Germany in your helicopter and can land next to the house that looks something like a blue rambler.

-Your Liturgical Grasshopper

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this because it brought back memories for me. I've been employed in Psychiatric hospitals several times. One assignment was with adolescents like you described. It is challenging and frustrating work. Thanks for the post.


Adoro te Devote said...

Thanks, Katie!

JR ~ ROFL! No, it's not our county...wish it was, the drive is significantly better! Thanks for your prayers....and I hope they do call for an interview, which they may not.

Monte ~ You know it!

Hidden One said...