“Headbanger in Paradise” was originally published in its entirety in Untold Stories: From the Deep Part of the Well. 2016 Redwood Writers Anthology, Roger Lubeck, Editor. September 2016.
I’m choosing to publish it here in four parts. Stay tuned for later segments. KT
Visitors are rare here. On admittance, our patients generally see that their friends and relatives have a way of moving on.
Three-dozen men, twenty-two to sixty-three years of age, live on my unit, a drop in the bucket of over a thousand patients, hospital-wide. They share bedrooms, bathrooms, and just about everything else. They struggle with schizophrenia, depression, and psychosis. Delusions, hallucinations, fear, and paranoia routinely show up.
Our patients often have little or no self-control. When paired with anxiety and anger issues, they act out on a regular basis, assaulting staff or one another. Often confused, they lack motivation to do much to help themselves.
Behind our backs, patients cut themselves with sharpened plastic utensils, broken CDs, pencils, or worse. It’s a tough place to be a patient. It’s a rough place to work.
Breakfast was over and done with. It was quiet on the unit, and I was glad of it.
I heard keys jangling from the other side of the door. Right on time, here he comes.
He walked into the unit, escorted by one of the psych techs from the admission unit.
Frank’s arms hung like flabby sausages. Thirty-three years old, he shuffled like an old man, a side effect of medication to reduce aggressive behavior.
His man-sweat, accompanied by a robust urine aroma, percolated the air as he approached me. Frank had been next door for thirty days now. He’d refused to shower every one of them.
“Morning, Shea,” the escort said.
“Good morning,” I answered. “How is everyone?”
“Not bad. He was at it again last night. Fine this morning, though.”
I noticed the bruises on Frank’s swollen forehead where he’d smashed his head against the wall.
“How do you feel, Frank?”
Head banging was Frank’s unique trademark. One minute, he’d be standing quiet as a doorknob. Next minute, he’d be methodically slamming his forehead against the wall. No wailing, no crying. Just slamming his forehead against the wall.
I started ransacking through the black trash bag, AKA patient’s luggage, which Frank handed to me. I latched onto a pair of hospital-issue sneakers, a denim jacket, a pair of sweat pants, and a San Francisco Giants T-shirt.
“Is this all you’ve got, Frank?”
He didn’t answer.
His escort did.
“That’s it, Shea. Here’s his chart. Have fun now.”
He fist-tapped Frank’s shoulder as he turned back to the admission unit.
I’d met Frank a week earlier on a help call to his unit. One patient had cornered another in a bedroom. They were pounding each other with fists, their obscenities scouring the room. They each weighed close to a couple hundred pounds. It was all we could do to separate them. The hospital police arrived in time to catch a young nurse being thrown to the wall.
Frank watched the action from across the hall. Leaving the room, I didn’t realize he’d quickened his step behind me until I felt him punching the back of my head.
He was sedated then, but my neck was stiff for a week. The real injury was to my psyche; a potent reminder to keep those eyes in the back of my head wide open.
He couldn’t help it, really. The voices crawling in his head screamed danger. It sent him straight into attack mode. A variety of meds helped only sometimes.
“Come on, Frank. Your bedroom is up the hall,” I said. He flinched when I placed my hand behind his elbow.
“Okay,” I said, pulling back. “It’s okay.”
I carried his meager belongings to his room.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m an RN. My name is Shea. We met next door. I work this unit most of the time.”
He slowly nodded yes. “I hit you, didn’t I?”
“Yep,” I said, smiling. “It’s okay, Frank, I’m fine.”