I worked graveyard shifts for a long time. It helped my senses avoid painful daylight hours. And it helped me avoid…you know, social stuff. Daylight people.
Even though I had a degree in psychology, I mostly worked in warehouses or filing rooms or shelf-stocking type places. Between midnight and sunrise, meaningful work is harder to find. The only exception was the job that I held for a little over a decade. I liked the clients there, so it was a pretty good set up.
This latter deal was a graveyard shift at a psychiatric facility for clients diagnosed with schizophrenia. Apropos of nothing: three stories from that time. For the privacy of those involved, names and details have been changed.
I wake up at 10 p.m., get dressed. I sit around my apartment for a bit, listen to music (old, haunted stuff), then head to work. I start my shift at 11.
The evening staff, whose shift is ending, fills me in on her night, tells me about the clients and about a few med changes. I don’t say anything, I just listen and nod. I try to avoid the other staff as much as possible. I’ve learned that staying silent drives people out of the room pretty quickly. So, she says the obligatory minimum, leaves.
I make coffee, hang out in the common area. The clients are usually asleep in their rooms by this point. I turn on a television, watch news with the sound off.
Saul walks through the room, on his way to the kitchen. He announces, “I need a snack!”
He makes toast…asks, “Can I have some of that coffee?”
I say, “I don’t know. I worry you’ll have trouble sleeping if you drink coffee this late.”
He doesn’t say anything. He just sits across from me, in a recliner, eats toast.
I watch news. Saul eats and quietly hallucinates.
He looks off to the side…points his finger at something, goes back to eating. He smiles and asks, “How do they keep getting out like that?”
I shrug. Saul looks off to the side…stares…gets up to throw his paper plate away.
He returns, sits in the recliner again. He says, “They get wound up sometimes, The Elders. Do you see them, when they get like that?”
“I guess not,” I tell him.
He laughs, continues; “Boy, they get wound up. They start squabbling and fighting. But they’re so small, it doesn’t do any harm, you know? They’re like kids. I mean, they’re old…they’re ancient…but they’re like kids, in the way they think.”
I drink coffee, watch the news. Saul reacts to hallucinations, then says, “I wish they’d go away. They don’t mean any harm, but I wish they’d just leave. They get rowdy, you know?”
I ask, “How was the toast?”
“Oh, it was good,” he replies. “I just needed something. I tried to sleep but got hungry.”
I rub my face and say, “Ugh, I’m sleepy, Saul. I can’t wake up.”
“Well,” he replies,”you get more of that coffee. Anyway. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Okay, Saul. Goodnight.”
As he walks away, he says, “If you see one, just give it a good talking to. They don’t mean any harm, but they’re like kids. They need discipline.”
I don’t say anything. I just watch the silent television. Images waver by. Firemen, storefronts, weather maps, dark clouds.
It’s nearly 8 a.m., end of shift.
I get all of the clients to the front porch…their bus pulls up, drives them to their day program. They’ll stay there until five in the afternoon, then return home.
Their day program is located on the same campus as the psych ward I work at. Our facility is on the west end, the day program is on the east end. The rest of the campus: eight buildings containing an assortment of mental health facilities…residential wards, offices for therapists and psychiatrists and so on. They divide evenly between services for adults and children.
With the clients gone, my shift is basically over. I’m ready to go home and sleep. I spend a few minutes doing paperwork; just as I’m about to leave, the phone rings. I pick it up, say the name of the facility.
A woman says, “M? This is Tricia…I’m a secretary at the Adult Services building.”
Adult Services: this is where the psychiatrists have their offices. It’s open to the public, it’s the largest building on the campus. I never have any dealings with the place, so it’s odd that they’re calling.
Tricia continues: “I contacted my supervisor and she said to call you. There is a man here named Walter…my supervisor said you work with him?”
“Yes. He just left the facility here a few minutes ago. Is he okay?”
“Well…he came in just now and started yelling. He’s in the middle of the waiting room, yelling and being really loud. He’s, I guess, delusional or something? And the waiting room is filled with clients this morning, so he is scaring a lot of people. And honestly, even the staff are a little scared. He seems really agitated.”
“I’ll come over,” I tell her. “He’s supposed to be at the day program, I guess he walked away from it.”
“My supervisor said we could call the police if we felt unsafe, but she asked us to check with you first. He’s just…really, really agitated.”
“Got it. I can assure you that Walter is very nice. If you could not call the police, that would be ideal. I’ll be right over to get him out of there, okay?”
We hang up. I rub my eyes, mumble curse words. Part of me is irritated with the staff over there for overreacting…it’s a mental health facility, for Christ’s sake; people are going to yell sometimes.
Mostly I’m frustrated by the fact that I have to go over there and see people. I’m used to being isolated on the night shift…tend to let my appearance go as a result, since it really doesn’t matter what I look like. On this particular morning: I haven’t shaved in months; my hygiene is not what it should be…I basically smell like a mix of depression and social aversion; and I’m wearing old, impossibly wrinkled clothes (including a coffee-stained t-shirt that has the word “yarn” on the front of it).
So I hate that I’m about to walk, like a disheveled phantom, into a busy waiting room all because some poor guy is expressing psychiatric symptoms in a psychiatric setting.
I glance at a few computer files, then head that way, mumbling curse words as I go.
I go through the big, glass door, into the Adult Services waiting room. Walter is there. He’s yelling into his hand- which he believes to be a communication device- saying, “Moses?! I am here for my shot and it will clean out your empty lands! Moses?! I am here for my shot…”
Visitors and other clients are standing against the walls, getting a little distance from Walter. Secretaries are staring from behind their glassed-in counters, watching the scene. I look around, try not to roll my eyes.
I walk up to Walter and say, “Sir? We have to go now.”
He stops yelling for a bit, replies, “I need to be here for a shot, M. A medical shot.”
I start to respond but he interrupts me by lifting his hand, shouting into it, talking to voices. I tell him, a little more insistently, “Walter…you don’t have anything scheduled for today. I checked before I came over. We have to leave, sir.”
He stares at me. I stare at him. I say, quietly, “Walter, look around. The yelling…it’s sort of too early for this, I guess. People can’t handle yelling this early. Look at them. They’re panicky.”
He looks around the waiting room…sees the other clients and staff…and says, “My oh my. Was I yelling?”
“Yes, sir. And if you and I don’t leave, the staff here are going to call the police. We need to go.”
“My oh my,” he says. “Just let me finish one thing. Real quick.”
He lifts his hand and whispers into it, “Check one, check one…medical shot denied. Repeat that…medical shot denied. Check one, check one.”
He looks at me and nods. I start walking towards the front door; he follows. I don’t know which of the secretaries looking on is Tricia. I just raise a hand and yell at the room, “Tricia! Thanks for whatever! We’re leaving!”
I take Walter over to his day program. I tell one of the staff there that he had wandered over to the Adult Services building, was being disruptive in the waiting room. The staff barely reacts, just says, “Yup. Happens.”
I nod, leave.
I’m in the break room, at a desk, letting my head rest on a pile of magazines. I might be asleep. It’s a little after 5:30 a.m. I hear clients moving around in the kitchen, foraging for breakfast. I go out, say “Good Morning,” make coffee.
Clients sit around the dining room table, eating cereal, drinking coffee. I stay in the kitchen, leaning against a wall, staring into space.
Holly walks up…points at me…says, “Wake up, sleepy head.”
She’s the only morning person in the facility.
I nod; she walks away to microwave a bowl of oatmeal.
As the microwave is running, she looks over and asks questions. She asks what the weather will be like. She asks if the newspaper is inside yet. She asks if she can go shopping, says she is almost out of shampoo. I tell her that I’ll notify the afternoon staff, set up a store trip.
She glances at the microwave, watches the bowl rotate as it heats. She says, “I’m getting burned out on oatmeal. I should try something else tomorrow.”
I ask what she’d like to try next. She says, “I’ve kinda been in the mood for…”
She stops talking; her facial expression changes. She looks distracted. She slowly tilts an ear forward, like she’s listening to something.
Then she looks at the digital display on the microwave, at the numbers counting down. She leans forward, her eyes an inch away from the display. She places a thumb against the numbers and rubs them. She rubs for a bit, then taps the screen.
Then she huffs in disappointment and says, “So close! Oh, man, that was so close.”
She forgets to resume the conversation we were having. When the oatmeal is ready, she goes to the common area to eat and watch television.
She begins small-talking with another client. She says, “I heard it’s supposed to rain today. Which…ugh…I do not like rain, but we kinda need it. It’s been so dry lately, you know? The trees are looking all sad and wilty.”
She eats for a bit, then asks the other client, “Did you hear what they just said about the code?”
The other client doesn’t respond.
She says, “They were announcing the full code- every number- and before they could finish it, they said ‘Microwave’. And I was like, what does that mean? So I looked over…and behind the numbers on the microwave, you could see the code a little bit. It was hidden behind the regular numbers. And, man! I thought I was going to see it all! But it was kinda blurry and hard to make out. And it went away before I could see the last number. That was the closest I’ve ever been.”
Holly has been listening to the code…and waiting to hear those last numbers…for nearly 20 years; for the entirety of her adult life. I know I hear her discuss it every shift. I’m on her side, always hoping she’ll hear those final digits.
She small-talks a little more and finishes breakfast. I walk by and she says, “Yo, sleepy head! You awake yet?”
I say, “No, ma’am.”
She hangs out on the couch a bit longer, watching television.
Every few minutes her facial expression changes. She looks distracted. Then she tilts an ear forward, listening.