It’s 7:00 PM and I’m tired so I go into the staff room and brew a pot of coffee. Within minutes the smell of java fills the nurse’s station. Normally I take it black but, as I’ve gotten older, I like it with milk and sugar in the evenings. After fixing my cup I sit at a desk to write my notes. Then a hand flashes in front of my face and grabs my cup.
“What the hell!” I yelp, watching as a patient shotguns the coffee, sending rivulets of hot fluid coursing down his neck.
“I want more!” the patient says, tossing the cup behind his shoulder.
“Holy shit!” I say, still in shock.
“I WANT MORE COFFEE!”
“Marty,” I tell the patient. “That was not cool.”
Marty is a psychotic bi-polar patient with OCD and a raging hard-on for coffee. Every five minutes he asks for a cup, forcing us to limit his intake to four a day.
“Gimme coffee,” he says, seething.
“Not after what you just did,” I say. “You could have burned me.”
“C’mon. Just another cup.”
Psych wards can be boring places. The sole television is behind shatterproof plastic and there’s no access to computers, smartphones, WI-FI, tablets, or other digital distractions. There is also very little to read. Last year I donated thirty books to the patient library and within a month they were gone. I didn’t begrudge when patients took them home, but the guy who tried to eat one pissed me off. Because of the lack of stimulation food, sugary snacks and coffee take on outsized importance.
“Then give me tea,” Marty shrieks. “Hot water with lemon. C’mon!”
“What’s going on here?” Hubert, one of our nurses says in his clipped British accent.
“He leaned over the counter and snatched my coffee,” I say, awed by the depth of the patient’s addiction.
“You cannot do that!” Hubert says.
“Tough,” Marty says. “I can do whatever I want.”
Sighing, Hubert walks into pharmacy. “I’m going to give him something.”
“I don’t want meds!” Marty shouts.
“You’re flying high,” I say. “You need something to calm down.” We normally serve the patients decaf and Marty’s just guzzled eight ounces of hi-test. That’s not good. Saying he’s high-strung is epic understatement.
“You better call security ‘cause I’m not taking anything.”
I get up from my chair, trip the electric lock and walk out of the nurse’s station. “Let’s go to the quiet room,” I say. “You need to calm down.”
Jorge, another staff person, joins the party. “What’s up?”
“Marty needs to get some meds,” I say, surveying the physical postures of the other patients in the dayroom. When a patient goes ballistic you have to worry about other patients joining the fray. In this case they might want to help us. Everyone’s sick of Marty begging for coffee.
“Let’s go to the quiet room, Marty,” Jorge says. “No trouble, okay?”
Marty isn’t terribly large, but he’s hard, sinewy and, as he aptly demonstrated, very fast. He could pop me with a left hook before I could react. Seeing him tense up I nod to the Jorge and we rush him, securing his arms behind his back.
“Let me go!” Marty yells, struggling. “I want coffee.” Ignoring his request, we march him to the quiet room.
The quiet room is on the other side of the unit. With the exception of a chair bolted to the floor, it’s devoid of anything patients might use to hurt themselves with. After we propel Marty inside, Jorge and I take up position in in the hall.
“Dude,” Jorge says to me, “Your shirt.” Looking down I see coffee stains all over it.
“My wife just bought me this shirt.”
“Why you should wear scrubs like me,” Jorge says.
“I look like a beach ball in scrubs.”
“That’s ’cause your fat, asshole,” Marty says, giggling manically.
During my time in psych I’ve been punched, kicked, spit on, bit; had shit, semen and blood thrown at me, bleach tossed into my eyes and even got hit upside the head with a frying pan. I’ve also been called every name in the book. Marty making remarks about my weight don’t bother me. But I’m pissed about my shirt.
“Sit down,” Marty, I say, professionally shoving my anger aside. “Try and relax.”
Hubert arrives carrying water and a cup filled with pills.
“What are you giving him?” I ask.
“Everything.” Hubert says, dryly.
I’m not taking it,” Marty says, backing into a corner. Just great.
“Take the pills,” the nurse says. “Or I’ll give you a needle.” Hubert does not mess around.
“I want more coffee!” Marty yells.
“Hang on a sec, guys” I say. “I’ll get him something.” I return with a cup of weakly brewed, lukewarm tea.
“Take your pills with this,” I say, handing Marty the cup. The patient downs his pills and the tea with a single swig.
Hubert smiles and shakes his head. Sure, I gave into Marty’s bullshit, but I didn’t feel like holding him down and seeing his butt. Besides, the pills he just took will knock him out for hours.
“Stay here for half and hour,” Hubert tells Marty. “Let the meds work.”
“Can I have more coffee?” he says.
“NO!” we all shout in unison.
Half an hour later Marty is out cold on the quiet room floor. Considering all the nervous energy he cranks out he was due for a crash. For the first time in hours the unit is quiet. I cover him with a blanket and let him sleep. Then I go home.
The next morning I wake up to find my wife holding up my shirt. “I just bought this for you!” she says. I groggily explain what happened.
“Sound like you in the morning,” Annie says. “You’re a monster until you’ve had your first cup.”
“Give me coffee,” I groan. “Give me coffee!”
My wife returns with a steaming mug. “Already made, dear.”
Sitting up in bed I sip the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world. Compared to Starbucks, Pablo Escobar ran a lemonade stand.
After the caffeine jolts me into sentience I help my wife load the baby into the car, eat breakfast, write for two hours, clean the house and shower and shave. Clipping my ID badge to my freshly ironed shirt I make the short drive to the hospital and clock in. When I walk onto the unit the first thing I hear is Marty shouting. “Steve! GIMME COFFEE.” God give me strength.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve never stopped being a waiter.