Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Friendly Greetings From Tombstone: Part III. Passive-Aggressiveness and Me

Written 26 January, 2010

Friendly Greetings from Tombstone III: Passive Aggressiveness and Me

When I was in my early twenties I found myself working in an old-style mental hospital.

You know the type. Every state had at least one.

Bottom photo by Richard Avendon

Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Think Suddenly, Last Summer. Think Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies.

Think Central State Psychiatric Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. That's where I worked while attending college.

My supervisor was Miss Schumann. And no matter that Miss Schumann always had a big strained smile on her face, she was one nasty piece of business.

I worked the evening shift. My mornings and early afternoons were taken up by classes at Middle Tennessee State University, where I was studying psychology.

When I started the job I was taking abnormal psychology. And you know what? I saw the various personality disorders, the classic neuroses and psychoses, Freud's defense mechanisms, dysfunctional people of a thousand different stripes, every diagnosis in the book. And you know what else? Most of the textbook examples weren't patients. They were on staff.

There was Nurse Bailey, the most effeminate gay man I have ever seen. He, the only male nurse at the institution, kept up a shallow facade of heterosexuality, talking about his imaginary girlfriend and touching males at every opportunity while mincing about in this whites. I once saw him grasp a patient by the testicles to "check his reflexes." In the dayroom! He invited the male aide standing beside him to touch them, too. I never saw a man back away so fast.

So check, page 322, Ego-Dystonic Homosexuality.

A male aide-- his name is long forgotten-- on the second floor was obsessed with his automobile's gas mileage. He would add just enough gas to his tank to get to work. Many afternoons I and others would watch him run out of gas halfway up the final hill. It would put him in a foul mood, and he would take it out on the patients.

So check, page 114, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

And then there was Miss Schumann. She was the very model of page 74-- a classic passive-aggressive personality overlying something very nasty, which I've never quite managed to diagnose.

Now, passive-aggressive people don't necessarily make a point of making life miserable for others. They merely meet demands made of them with little rebellions. They make sure they spill half the garbage when they take it out. They are stubborn, resentful, sullen. They passively resist expected social tasks and the demands made by work.

Miss Schumann, however, blended her passive-aggressiveness with meanness. She lived to torment others, and her position as my supervisor gave her leeway to play head games with me. She would give me one of her shark-in-the-swimming-pool smiles and then peel my skin back. She would engineer the situation ahead of time and then drop it on me at a time of her chooosing.

Despite her superficial smile, I wasn't fooled. I knew Miss. Schumann was a horrible person. But she was secure in her little fiefdom and I was just a new hire with no power. She was the one with the power.

After a few months a situation developed which made her think she could torpedo me. To my credit, I somehow came through unscathed. I wish I could say the same about Jewell.

On the admissions ward, where I worked, there was a woman named Jewell. Jewell was in the hospital because she had fired a .22 caliber bullet into her belly.

For some reason Jewell's abusive redneck husband was allowed to visit her, drunk, and threaten and bully her and tell her she was crazy and he would see she would NEVER get out of the hospital, right on the ward. And when Jewell would take a furlough and go on the bus to visit her home town, she would come back shaken and depressed.

One evening, on the day she returned from a home visit, and just as my shift was about to end, Jewell came to me and told me that she had brought a bottle of aspirin to the unit and had just taken every aspirin in the bottle.

I asked her the pertinent questions: how big was the bottle? How many aspirin did it hold? When did she take them? Where had she put the bottle? Then I went to the on-unit supervisor-- Mrs. Arnold was her name and I hope she's rotting in hell-- and told her what Jewell had told me.

Arnold instructed me and the other aide on the unit to take a quick look through the garbage. We did, and found nothing. We went back to Mrs. Arnold and told her we planned to dump the cans so we could go through them properly. She forbade us. We said we didn't mind staying late and working off the clock. She told us to go home, she would take care of it. And, reluctantly, we did go home.

The next afternoon, when I arrived on the unit, the first shift charge aide told me, "We don't know what's wrong with Jewell. She's in bed with a temperature of 96 and has sweated her bed wet three times. This is her fourth change of linen."

I told her exactly what was wrong with Jewell. Within 15 minutes Jewell was in the hospital infirmary..

And there she stayed, for more than a week-- and then she died.

Jewell had a number of high-functioning friends on the unit. I wasn't sure, in fact, why some of them were even there. I was seeing a lot of crazy behavior, but it was all coming from staff. Every day, Jewell's closest friend would come to me and ask me how Jewell was doing. I would say she was still ill, still in the infirmary, and she would go away, saddened.

On the day Jewell died, shortly after I heard the news, her friend came to me and asked me how Jewell was.

Faced with a direct question, I could have lied. I choose not to. In fact, the expression on my face said it all.

"She died, didn't she?" one of her friends asked. I nodded.

Understandly, Jewell's friends were beside themselves. They cried and consoled one another, and we all got through it.

Two days pass. On the third day, not fifteen minutes after I reported to work, there was a parade on the stairs. Up trooped the head psychiatric nurse, the unit social worker, the unit psychologist, Miss Schumann, and the physician, who was in charge of everybody else. They went into the visitor's lounge and locked the door. Five minutes later they emerged and started calling the staff in one by one.

I was the last one called. When I entered the room the psychologist closed the door and Miss Schumann said, "We're here to determine who told the patients Mrs. (Jewell's last name) died.

Now, I was 23 years old and inexperienced in the machinations of bureaucracy, but I was no fool. I said, "That's no secret. I told them."

"And why, Ms. Palisades," said Miss Schumann sweetly, "did you feel it necessary to tell the patients about Mrs. (Jewell's last name)'s demise?"

I looked her square in the face and said, "I was asked a direct question. I felt lying would not be in the therapeutic interest of the other clients."

That, as it turned out, was the one thing I could have said to keep myself out of trouble.

That ended my interview. I left the room, they closed the door, and five minutes later they opened it and Miss Schumann said-- and I just KNOW it killed her to say it-- "Ms. Palisades, we have concluded you acted appropriately under the circumstances." And then they trooped down the steps like a bunch of ducks, following the physician.

Only later did I realize their reason for coming to the unit. They had come to crucify me.

So, considering one human being needlessly dead because the shift charge didn't do her damn duty and the one person who tried to do her duty being set up to get her head chopped off because of it, please forgive me if these days I don't take passive-aggressive fools kindly.

And yes, yes, I'm talking about she of the faux saccharine smiles, Authoritarian Annie.

Postscript: No, no one got in trouble for Jewell's death. That's the way the system works. People are made dead and no one gets blamed. It's the system. They system makes them dead.

Wolf Wolfensberger calls this "Deathmaking," and it is. See here for a wiki on social role valorization, the devaluation of those who are different.

Mrs. Arnold, who to my mind will always be responsible for Jewell's death, was not blamed. Instead, an attempt was made to scapegoat me-- not for the needless death of a patient, mind you, but for perhaps not following a protocol that had never even been laid out.

Scary stuff, I know. This and other hair-raising incidents at the mental hospital gave me a healthy dose of cynicism and suspicious of "the system" at an early age. Thankfully.


Anonymous said...

NO one ever got in trouble for her dying?!

Cheyenne Palisades said...

Not surprisingly, no, no one got in trouble. My telling the clients she was dead was the extent of the "investigation." The system wasn't interested in punishing Mrs. Arnold, damn her eyes.

I'll clarify in the main post.