“Stephen, dear,” Connie says. “Please refill my ice water.”

I don’t even look up from my chart.  “Connie, the water machine is right over there. You’re perfectly capable of getting it.”

“I’m too old. Be a nice young man and get me my water. A cup of tea would be nice too.”

Connie is in her seventies and has mistaken the psych ward for the Waldorf Astoria.

“Did you hear me?” Connie shouts. “I want some water! Make it snappy.”

“Why don’t you shut up already,” another patient says. “I’m sick of your yelling.”

“You shut up,” Connie hisses. “I am very rich! I demand respect. I will not be trifled with.”

I groan inwardly. Connie is imperious, vain, opinionated, and loud – a real diva. She’s also deluded. With her hair in disarray and wearing a hospital gown over adult diapers, no one’s going to mistake her for a long lost Vanderbilt. She’s also the worst kind of patient to have on the unit. The tongue-lashings she doles out sets off the other patients, making my life harder.

“Yo lady,” the aggravated patient says. “Cut the shit.”

“Roger,” I say, my voice brooking no argument. “Come over here.”

Roger shuffles over, smiling back at his clique of younger patients. “What up?’

“She’s an old woman,” I say. “Ignore her.”

“She gonna get in trouble talking like that.”

I look Roger right in the eye. “You will not bother her in any way.”

“Listen I don’t take no….”

“She’s here because she can’t control how she acts,” I say, cutting him off. “You can control how you act. Leave her be.”

Roger shrugs and walks away. He’ll be a problem eventually.

Connie explodes again. “Tell that girl to stop looking at me! I don’t want her near me.” The poor girl in question tears up.  Time to shut Connie down.

“Connie,” I say gently. “You will stop yelling at the patients.”

“You can’t tell me what to do. I can buy and sell you!”

“Listen to me, Connie…”

“No, you listen to me! I won’t be treated like this. I….”

I raise my hand. “Other people are hurting here. I know you don’t mean too, but you’re making them feel worse.”

My words hit home and Connie shrinks in her seat. “I know, I know. I’ll be quiet. Sorry.”

“Thank you Connie.”

I go to the break room and make Connie a cup of tea and get her ice water. When I place them in front of her she says, “I love you.” Connie probably has dementia or Alzheimer’s on top of a preexisting psychiatric condition. Life can be very cruel. I can only imagine what she’s gone through.

“When you’re done,” I say, “I’ll open the shower and you can get cleaned up. Get you a new gown. Fix your hair.”

“Thank you.”

“Just keep your voice down.”

As I walk away old words echo in my head. “When I was hungry you gave me food. When I was thirsty you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in; naked you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.” The psych ward gives you ample opportunity to do all these things. I’ve forgotten that.

I’ve had a rough time on the psych unit. Last week I went home with blood on my clothes. There’s been violence, threats of violence and the patients never seem to get better. I lost my mojo, my edge. The patients became the enemy. I almost quit. Then I had a few days off to think about things.

I realized I had become complacent on the job, too confident in my skills. My co-workers often tell me they feel better when I’m working and I believed my own legend. My skills atrophied and when the storms came I missed the mark.  Suddenly I was no longer the rock, the one people turn to when the going gets tough. I felt humiliated.

That wasn’t the only thing that upset me. People who do this kind of work usually believe they’re good people. When I was in the seminary I noticed those who did “charitable” work for a living were often jerks. Being good 9-5 seemed to give people license to be immoral during their off hours, proven by the scandals which rocked the Catholic priesthood. But anyone who espouses worthy causes or gives to charity can fall into this trap. Altruism can be used as a drug to forget our shortcomings.

My complacency at work was a symptom that I had become complacent in my own goodness. An old theologian said there’s a possibility hell is empty, but we’re not sure. And while it’s good to hope for all men to be saved, never be too sure of your salvation. In the end it’s out of your hands. Hellfire should tickle your conscience and keep you humble. Otherwise you end up like that smug Sadducee praying, “God, I thank You that I’m not like other people–greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

I try and take fatherhood day by day, but when I hold my daughter in the quiet early morning hours the enormity of my responsibilities overwhelm me. Now I think I know why. Natalie’s forcing me to accept that what I do now will have enormous repercussions for her later. “Don’t fuck it up, Dad.” I should always worry if I’m a good father. I should always worry about my goodness. I can’t be complacent. Thinking you got it covered leads to trouble.

Connie finishes her tea and I pop her in the shower. To my chagrin she hogs it for an hour. When she finally emerges a nurse gives her a new diaper, clothes and meds and puts her to bed. Within minutes she’s fast asleep, temporarily freed from the demons that haunt her.

Later, as I watch the patients milling around, I remember how bad things were a few weeks ago. I felt like I was working in a long-term hospice, managing the damage until these people died. Like that Sadducee, I was glad I wasn’t one of them. I had forgotten everyone is hungry and a stranger; everyone is thirsty, naked and sick. We are all in prisons. Standing in the dayroom I bask in the fires of Hell and remember hope springs from brokenness.

It’s good to get burned now and then.

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