After my first year of seminary, I married my best friend from college. Paul was a seminary student as well. He planned to be a church pastor. But with his “radical” beliefs (consistent with mine), we knew that securing a pastorate was a long shot.
Paul and I both had to work to make ends meet. My first jobs were at a health food restaurant, a book store and a clothing store. Paul worked as a psychiatric aide at the State psychiatric hospital just outside of Louisville, Ky. He worked with significantly impaired patients and with significantly abusive co-workers. I admired his courage.
I hoped for more meaningful work that was also more lucrative, i.e. paid more than minimum wage. During one of my daily reads of the want-ads, I ran across a position for a part-time psychiatric aide at a local private hospital. It was very tempting, but I was fearful. Could I deal with unpredictable, perhaps violent, individuals? Paul encouraged me to give it a try.
Becoming a psychiatric aid was my first foray into the professional world, and I found it fascinating. I assisted patients with illnesses that ranged from personality disorders to major depression to schizophrenia. I took every opportunity to learn from doctors and nurses about psychiatric symptoms, causes and treatments.
A couple of experiences stand out as instructive for my future work. One evening, a young woman was brought to the ward by the police. She was so out of her head that she had to be physically restrained. The woman had reported thoughts of putting her new born baby in the oven. Her preliminary diagnosis was post-partum depression, with psychotic features. The doctor called the staff into the lock-down room for assistance. “Watch this,” one of the nurses said to me. The doctor gave the woman tied down on the bed an injection of sodium pentothal. In just a few minutes, the woman was sitting there having a cogent conversation with the doctor. Wow! I imagined her brain before drugs and after drugs. Sometimes your brain on drugs is a good thing. The woman was able to return to her baby in just a few weeks.
The second experience was my observation of an electroshock therapy session. The patient was, like me, a seminary student. He was deeply depressed and had grandiose religious delusions. We had had some conversations on the ward about his religious views. Sometimes mental illness draws upon what you believe to be true and amplifies it. Now the student/patient lay unconscious, strapped down with electrodes connected to various parts of his body. As the electricity was turned on, the nurse pointed to the man’s ankle. His flesh was vibrating. The room suddenly seemed very hot. For the first time in my life, I thought I was going to faint. I excused myself.