My decision to accept a staff nurse position in mental health hospital was, at best, disconcerting to my husband. It perplexed him that after working solely with girls and women for 40 years I would consider and/or be able to care for adult men. He worried about my transition from the worlds of not- for-profit and privately- owned facilities with strong religious/spiritual missions to a state run, government culture and systems. It confounded him that I would go back to bedside nursing after years of management, entrepreneurship and community activism. Finally, it seemed most unreasonable to abandon beautiful, comfortable, modern buildings with nice equipment and ample supplies. After waving all the yellow, cautionary flags he said, “Do what you have to do.”
Please know while I appear confident and eager, I am not fearless, in optimal physical condition nor the quickest thinker at age 65. Day three of orientation, participating in Bridge Building Class was a first- time experience. Bridge Building skills are critical to employment. It entails de-escalation techniques and the use of physical and mechanical restraints for patients who become a danger to themselves or others. This was up close and personal, live demonstrations, practice and return demonstrations. Physical deflecting, blocking pads, spit masks, 2-4-way restraints and ‘the chair’. (recall Hannibal Lector, sans metal face cage). It was a lot to take in.
Nervous about the risks, in an adrenalin afterglow, I shared the day’s events with my husband while icing my knee. He was unusually quiet. In retrospect, I sense his concerns for my safety. I am typically close-mouthed about work. My spouse usually presents dinner and shares the details of his day. He tries to draw me out to share mine. His efforts go afoul as he tried to be comedic referring to patients as criminal, crazy and the like. I think the first time or two, I tried to ignore my ire- unsuccessfully. The third time- I gave my best Aretha Franklin, extended-arm, flat handed: “STOP! You better THINK about what you’re tryin’ to say to me!” “You can no longer talk like that! Those words are derogatory and mean. That language demeans me, my colleagues and my patients.” He was stunned. He is not a mean person. He simply didn’t know. Neither of us knew until that moment. Our rules changed. Both Maya Angelou and St. Mother Teresa have been credited with the adage, “When you know better, you can do better.”
Bless his heart. My spouse announced his newest brilliant idea a couple days after my patient/self-protective declaration. Excitedly, he announced, “I will now refer to your workplace as the Aviary and the residents as birds and various species! What do you think?” Our shared memory of the bird sanctuary in Liberty Park in Salt Lake City and our brief stint owning chickens held fond memories. “Brilliant!”, I agreed. As so it is.
I have no idea the social acceptability or if this breaches some mental health profession decorum. What I do know is that this is a way we can peripherally discuss our daily lives and for me to contain the anonymity of patients in a manner of loving observation and respect. The most fun comes with the wide variety of synonyms, idioms, and slang related to birds. For example; to bird- to watch, a lot of our work is observation and reporting. Giving the bird- this happens often and is ok if it’s a patient giving this sign of disapproval. It’s not ok for staff to act in kind. We have people who (WHOO) are owlish or nocturnal, and pacers who never take flight like emus or penguins. Sometimes patients repeated come to the nurse station or swoop like gulls and aggressive patients or those with a proclivity to escape reminds me of raptor behavior. But here a home I often am asked, “How were the loons or your loons today?” I kind of love this and them, the entire mismatched flock.