Real Stories of a (Former) Mental Health Worker

Note: There is this gorgeous law (HIPAA) that prevents me from using real names in this post, and so I will use an asterisk when needed to indicate that names were changed. I will also not use the actual names of the facilities I worked at for similar reasons, because I’m not trying to get sued. I’m a blogger and behavior health technician, not a millionaire.

This month is Mental Health Awareness Month. This post is dedicated to my former co-workers (especially my Resource Team friends) and mental health professionals everywhere.

It’s a rough profession and deserves a lot more respect than it gets. It’s also very rewarding, which is one of the many reasons why I am glad that I chose psychology as my field of work.

A Few Definitions

I know not everyone understands these terms, so here are some definitions to help you out a bit:

Mental Health Technician/Mental Health Worker/Mental Health Associate: these are all pretty much the same, depending on where you work. I’ve been called all three.

1:1: a patient that requiring someone is with them at all times, whether they are asleep or not, sometimes both. This can get very tedious, and sometimes you have to stay within arms’ reach of the patient for safety reasons.

Code: this is not the code you see on TV. This code is for physical backup when things get out of hand, mainly when a patient is being aggressive, destructive or a combo. These are called for a variety of reasons, but these are the two most common ones.

Resource Team- an amazing team of people trained to work on every inpatient unit in a mental health facility. They are responsible for knowing everything about all the units, and they catch hell for messing up. It’s a great team to be a part of because they stick together and you never know what will happen next or where you will be. It’s also very stressful.

Checks/Rounds: ensuring patient safety by visualizing patients every 15 minutes.

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(I’ve seen C.Diff, and it’s ugly, especially in non-verbal kids. YIKES)

Let me set up the story for you…

In June 2007, Spalding University granted me a Bachelor of Arts in Clinical Psychology. Many don’t know this unless you ask, see it in my author bio or on my resume.

It took me five years, a change in major (my first major was in apparel design and merchandising- fancy wording for fashion design), school and two kids, but I finally graduated. I also completed a mandatory 100-hour practicum.

I was not prepared for my first job out of college. I had gotten a job as a Mental Health Technician at *Clear Lake Hospital and I was a bit nervous but ready to start my career.

I started the week after I finished classes. (I walked June 2, but still to finish my last class, which was sheer torture.) I did fine in orientation but was not happy when I found out that I was placed on the geriatric unit.

What?

This facility didn’t let you pick what unit you went to, but I had hoped I wasn’t going to get put on a unit I didn’t like.

I was not thrilled about being placed on this unit, known as the *Willow Tree Unit. I wanted to transfer immediately, but there was a policy preventing me from doing so for 6 months. I decided to wait it out.

Two months into that wait, I discovered that I was pregnant with Lily. My OB/GYN told me that I would be better off where I was because the pregnancy was not an easy one from the beginning.

A different unit would be a faster pace and could result in more issues with my pregnancy. I decided to stay put so that Lily would have a better chance of being okay. I ended up liking the *Willow Tree Unit.

The staff was nice- I was the youngest tech on first shift. Once word got around that I was pregnant, the nurses and other techs took care of me.

One afternoon, my shoes became untied and I couldn’t reach them because my belly was huge. I burst into tears and one of my fellow techs tied them for me. She understood the struggle- she’d been in my spot two years before.

I didn’t get to finish out the pregnancy on that unit- I went into preterm labor at 31 weeks (on Cameron’s 3rd birthday, of all days) and my OB/GYN told me that I would have to stop working or go on light duty, basically a desk job.

I chose the desk job because we needed the money. I went to medical records for all of five weeks or so. The ladies there were nice and began a betting pool on when Lily would show up. Lily shares a birthday with one of the ladies in the office, which everyone found hilarious.

Thanks to Kentucky state budget cuts, the *Willow Tree Unit was closed down while I was on light duty, and when I came back from maternity leave, I was sent to an acute care unit. I was better suited for that unit and stayed there until I left in June 2008 for a counseling position in Indiana.

The Real Fun Begins

In late 2010, I was ready for a new and closer to home position. I found another Mental Health Worker position at *MidRiver Regional Hospital. This time, I was able to pick where I wanted to go, because it was in the application. I would be on the Resource Team. It sounded very interesting and kind of fun.

I was absolutely right. Orientation was a bit boring- but that’s where I met Josh (Jake’s older brother) so I call that a win. I had to shadow for a couple of weeks on each unit- a couple of days with another worker, and then I was unleashed.

The very first day was a day that is forever etched in my mind- I was on *2West, a unit that was then used for kids from 12-18 with autism and other developmental disabilities. It was super loud, wild and some of the kids were way bigger than me.

What did I sign up for?

I took a huge deep breath, looked at my assignment sheet and kept going.

I spent two years on the Resource Team. It was a lot of fun- full of laughs, friends, and a few mishaps. I’ve run after people that eloped, including one that I chased across a busy street along with another worker. The kid ran off at a hospital and we did catch her. I’ve been punched in the head. I even caught a stereo cord to the face.

I was with a 1:1 and the patient was very upset about her Justin Beiber CD was repeatedly skipping. I told her that maybe it was time to try a different activity, and tried to unplug the stereo. She picked it up, then dropped it, and when I went to pick it up, she hit me in the face with the cord.

A code was immediately called and I was taken off the floor. I was taken to the main nursing office to get my face looked at.

I called Matthew to get me from work, and he took me to a nearby hospital- I ended up with three liquid stitches. You can barely see the scar today. I took the next day off because my eye was so swollen that I had a hard time seeing out of it, and let me tell you, tetanus shots are not fun.

As for the patient, she was so upset when she found out what happened to me, she became hysterical. I was one of her favorite staff members. She had to be medicated to calm down. She apologized the next time she saw me.

While I was working at this facility, things were not that great at home. Julian wasn’t diagnosed until late 2011. I was struggling a lot internally with both anxiety and depression. You can read about those events in A Letter to my Anxiety and Depression and Looking At the Bright Side

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I was able to lose myself in my work. I loved being able to help others and work with great people. We had a lot of fun on the good days and on the not so good days, pull together and make things work. That, to me, is the definition of teamwork.

In March 2013, I had a mini-stroke. My neurologist suggested afterward that I needed to start looking for ways to lessen or eliminate stress in my life. By this point, I was ready to leave the Resource Team- it was getting too stressful for me. Some people leave after months, some people stay the entire time they are at the facility.

I started thinking about which unit would be a good fit. I was pretty much done with adults- that was where the bulk of my work had been, and I needed something different. I had realized that I really enjoyed the kids on *2West and the staff was great.

I’d volunteer to go there when other people didn’t want to go- it was a rough unit. I didn’t really enjoy cleaning poop off walls (who does? I can’t make this up, it really happens) but it had become my favorite unit.

It took a few months of waiting, but a position opened up. By then, I had met Jake, and that was his home unit. I applied, interviewed and got the full-time Mental Health Associate position. My Resource Team friends were sad to see me go (my friend Scott begged me not to go), but they were not surprised to hear where I was going.

It turns out that going to *2West was the best career move I’ve ever made. I loved it.

Those kids were not always the easiest to work with- I’ve been kicked in the eye, had my hair pulled out in clumps, broken my big left toe twice and in the same way. It still doesn’t bend correctly. I’ve seen all kinds of naked kids. I’ve left work scratched and bruised from multiple holds. I’ve gotten sick from these kids- strep throat can go through 20 kids fast.

I also learned a lot- how to sign (some), how to learn about a kid even when they are non-verbal. I learned that some families are worse than you can imagine and even the ones that look great are horrible.

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Autism is not seen as often in girls, but when it is, it tends to be severe. One of my favorite kids was a tall, thin girl named *Michelle. She was a runner and I got lots of exercise running after her in the halls. She was also non-verbal but showed her feelings by squeezing your hands.

She squeezed my hands every day to say “hello” and “goodbye” but if she was angry, she would pull on your arms while squeezing your hands. She was so much fun to work with. When she left, she bent down to hug me goodbye, and both *Claire (her behavior analyst) and I cried. That’s a very unusual thing.

Taylor Swift sing-a-longs were a regular thing and so were movie days on the weekends. We tried to make things as fun as we could for the kids. We took them outside and let them play as much as they were able to on the playground. We got the kids out of bed, fed them, got them through their days and back into bed- for some of them, we were more of a family to them than their own.

*Mason was a kid who saw us exactly like that. I met him while doing checks and he was in the shower singing “Baby Got Back”. He was hilarious, and once beatboxed to me about needing toothpaste.

However, he came from a family that didn’t treat him well, which contributed to some of the reasons he came to the facility. Once, I was planning an outing with another associate, and he asked us to take him and the other patients to a strip club. That did not happen, but we laughed hysterically after he left the room.

These kids were so funny, smart in their own way. I couldn’t have asked for better co-workers. Some days entirely sucked, but it was still a fun adventure.

My last day there was September 2, 2015. I left after being told about Jake’s death, and I came back two days later to get my things and leave my nurse manager a note telling her I wouldn’t be back.

I couldn’t write this post without mentioning Jake, Austin, Scott (not the one mentioned earlier), Cisco or Colleen. I lost these co-workers while working with them or after and each loss was a bad one. They left behind families that loved them and patients that they touched. They worked hard (Cisco got electrocuted trying to keep a patient safe) and had a lot of love for their patients.

I’m retired from this line of work- thanks to my RA diagnosis. My rheumatologist would go ballistic. I am left with so many memories and friends. That’s what work and life are all about.

All pics are my personal pics except for one pin on my Pinterest board. Pinterest

Looking At the Bright Side

A Dark Day Brings Light

November 23, 2011, was a dark day at my house, but yet it brought a lot of light to my mind. That is the day Julian was diagnosed with ADHD (combined) and traits of Asperger’s Syndrome. (This was later amended to a full diagnosis and he is now considered to be on the autism spectrum because Asperger’s was removed from the DSM-V.)

Autism meme

It brought tears and peace at the same time. I finally had answers to so many questions. I wasn’t a bad mom, there was actually a reason he was doing all these things.

I finally had tools to help him. I could help him calm himself so he wouldn’t throw toys, hit his siblings or myself. I might even get dinner done on time some nights instead of stopping to deal with Julian’s meltdowns.

Losing Perspective

Somewhere in the middle of trying behavior charts, evaluations and basically bribing Julian to act appropriately, I’d forgotten the good things about him. He did have those, like every other kid.

Don't say sorry

For example, Julian is so intelligent. For the most part, he’s always done well in math and science. He hates reading.

There is a bright side to having a kid with special needs. It changes you in ways you never thought possible. You may have learn a lot about the diagnosis (or more than one), but you’ll be able to spread awareness about it. I’ve become very vocal about ADHD and autism.

You can read my thoughts on the vaccination/autism debate in this post:

The Autism/Vaccine Debate

I’ve walked for a local organization for families of children with autism. I worked with kids with autism for almost five years, and I loved it. It makes it easier for me to deal with the struggles.

I know I’m far from alone because there are many families that have the same day to day issues that I do. This includes some of my friends.
I’ve learned that you have to be a different parent for each kid.

What works for Lily may not work for Julian. Cameron responds a lot differently to things than his siblings. We have had to adjust to Julian’s quirks and needs and become a lot more creative and open-minded. I’ve had to think on my feet a lot and outside the box a lot more.

Learning to Adjust

I never really went through the stage that some parents do in which they grieve what they imagined what their child would be able to do. Julian will still have a full life- he will just have a few bumps along the way.

Swing
We are able to see the world through a different lens with Julian- slightly narrowed thinking, a dry sense of humor, ability to help with or without asking- he loves to help his dad and grandfather do “big guy stuff”. He does show emotions, but we are still working on empathy.

I have become tougher. I don’t see this as a terrible thing. I’ve learned to fight for what Julian needs and I will do that until he can do it on his own. I won’t let him be in the world on his own without knowing how to get help if he needs it and without the skills, he needs to navigate his issues.

We do have bad days as parents, with or without special needs kids. Looking at the bright side can help bring our focus back to the positivity around us- our kids.

Are You Okay?- A Conversation Starter

Three words can help a lot more than you realize.

“Are you okay?”

This question can start a potentially life-saving conversation or start a complete shut-down- but it’s worth trying.

If you’re asking someone this question, there’s likely a good reason, maybe more than one. Think carefully- has he/she been quieter than usual, or have you seen changes in their personality? Other changes?

If so, good move.

You may be on the right track.

The Infinite Struggle

Some people, however, are not good with expressing that they need help, or even talking about their feelings when they really should. These are the people you may want to be gentle with after asking if they’re okay.

I am one of these people. It’s a struggle. I worked on this in therapy and still, it’s a struggle. Let me explain- I know that I get stuck in my own brain, which is not a good thing. My thoughts can get pretty bad. I also know that I need to talk to someone about those thoughts. Don’t freak out, because I don’t have suicidal thoughts or anything like that, but stay with me.

I just freeze up when it’s probably time to reach out.

Why?

If we remember that horrible time in which I cried constantly and drank my pain away, I probably got on everyone’s nerves. That’s how I saw it. My former therapist explained (very patiently) that people were there for me because they wanted to be.

Okay, then.

She went on to say that if they were truly tired of all my crying and sadness, they would have left me alone at that point.

Once I felt a lot better about my life, I began to feel as if I didn’t really have a right to burden people with my problems anymore, because I’d run out of people’s patience. I have friends who will listen to me anytime I need them to, but I don’t always talk.

I really need to work on this.

The Next Steps

So what do you do if someone says, “No, I’m not okay?”

  • Listen. This might be the best thing you can do for them.
  • If they say they need some extra help, do what you can to help them get it. If they need emergency assistance, call 911 or take them to the nearest ER.
  • Ask “What can I do?” This might sound super simple, but you may be surprised at what might help someone during a rough time.
  • Don’t tell them that this will pass very soon, etc. Time can feel like it is slowing down during a depressive/manic/other episode, or even speeding up. Saying things like that can make the person feel trivialized or otherwise like a burden.

What if the person says “I’m good, thanks,” but you feel like they are not quite okay?

This is a hard one. As someone who falls into this area, all you can really do is wait it out. Give the person some space. We have our own reasons for not talking, and we may do so on our own time. Unless the person is an immediate danger to themselves and/or others, there’s not a lot you can do. Just watch out for the person as much as you can and give gentle reminders that you are there for them if needed. My best friends do this quite often.

If the person says “No, I’m fine” and becomes angry and/or aggressive:

Absolutely back up. I don’t advise taking this any further because someone can get hurt trying to push the conversation. Stop what you’re doing immediately and get to a safe location.

The Conversation Continues

Talking about our mental health isn’t a bad thing. We need to check in with ourselves and each other. Every day. Every week. Every month.

The stigma is still present while many of us fight the battle daily. We go to therapy, take meds, and do other things to make sure that we remain stable.

If you know someone is struggling, reach out to them. You may be helping them through the darkest hour of their lives. If you’re the one that’s struggling, you’re worth it. Take a minute and text someone you trust.

*picks up cell and texts bestie*

#SpeakNow #ForMySuperman

Do you struggle with talking about your feelings?

If so, BetterHelp can be a good place to start. This will help Georgia residents find a therapist, but can also lead others to what they need.

Photos courtesy of pexels

Book Review: “Fall to Pieces”

I love to read memoirs. For some reason, I really enjoy reading memoirs of those with addiction, and this was before my drinking became a problem. I’ve read “Life” by Keith Richards, which was fantastic but took three weeks because it’s over 500 pages.

I’ve also read Nikki Sixx’s book, “The Heroin Diaries”. It was a bit wild, but still very interesting. I’m just waiting for a member of Fleetwood Mac to come out with their memoirs. If anyone knows of one, please let me know.

I”ve read “Fall to Pieces” before, but it was a bit different re-reading it this time. This book was written by Mary Forsberg Weiland, the first wife of Scott Weiland.

He was the lead singer for Stone Temple Pilots, one of the best rock bands of the 90s. If you’re too young to know who this band is, you might want to go on YouTube. They were a great band. Scott died in December 2015, unfortunately from an overdose.

Book cover

The book opens with a very descriptive explanation of her childhood in California, a bit in New Jersey after her mom’s remarriage and, of course, when she met Scott.

Mary also became a model while moving around and became quite successful while still a teen. She also met her best friends during this time. She became friends with Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of Red Hot Chili Peppers. They have remained friends for many years.

It wasn’t until I read Scar Tissue, his autobiography, that I understood all the while Anthony was being my true friend, his own soul was being badly shaken.”

This stood out. We don’t always know what our friends are going through, much less anyone else. People hide things but still make things look at least bearable. I’ve been there for my friends through their own issues but yet struggling through my own.

The story of her relationship and later, marriage, with Scott, is so well detailed. She tells of the good, bad and in between. They were together off and on nearly a decade before marrying, and they had two kids together- a daughter and a son.

During this time, Mary drank and used a lot of substances. She knew it wasn’t the best way to live, but it took multiple attempts to finally stop using.

Mary also has had a long battle with bipolar disorder, possibly beginning when she was a teen. It’s hard for her or anyone else to know. She wasn’t diagnosed until well into adulthood, and this is well documented in the book. She struggled to accept this diagnosis along with being an addict.

Many people with either issue do. I will say she is being treated and is sober, but I won’t spoil the ending for you on how she got there.

Mary shared a quote from a community college class:

“In recovery, we look for progress, not perfection.”

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This is very accurate. Nobody is perfect, and anyone recovering from any kind of addiction certainly isn’t. Progress is what counts the most. It is not close to easy, and anyone who tells you it is- they are not entirely correct.

One of my best friends, Tyson, once asked me if I was okay while sitting at dinner and the talk to turned to beer for a while. I wasn’t a fan of beer to begin with, and he knows this, but he was making sure I wasn’t thinking about having a drink.

I wasn’t, but I am very grateful that he asked. It took a year before I could even go into a sports bar. “One day at a time” is the best quote I have ever heard that applies to recovery.

As many of us know, Scott and Mary did not work out (the section about the end of their marriage is a sad one) but they were able to co-parent, at least as of the writing of this book. I’m one of the millions of fans that were saddened to hear of Scott’s death. He was incredibly talented, like many others, but yet, he had an addiction that he was never quite able to end.

Pic courtesy of Google

Behind the Name 

I have a lot of new followers and I’m pretty sure not everyone gets the idea behind the name Shortstack Blogs, “One Day, One Blog at a Time, or even my Facebook page, which you can find at ShortstackBlogs

Field trip

Field trip with Lily

The Facebook page is pretty ordinary- Meredith is my middle name. Thanks, Mom and Dad. I’ve actually hated it as long as I can remember but in this case, it flowed and I ran with it.

The title of my blog comes from sobriety and blogging coming together. If you’ve ever heard of any kind of recovery phrases, I’m willing to bet that one of those is “One day at a time.” This phrase is tattooed on the inside of my left wrist.

I live this way because I know the feeling of planning out the rest of your life and then having it fall apart. I have spent almost four years putting myself and my life back together. I’ve literally had to do it one day at a time, sometimes an hour at a time.

One day at a time
“Shortstack” is a nickname. I’m 5’2″ and Jake was 6’3″. I don’t remember how this got started, but we had a long-running joke about our height difference and this was one of his nicknames for me. (I’m used to getting jokes about my height from pretty much everyone I know, including my own kids.)

His brother Josh still gets me every chance he gets. My blog was created partially to spread awareness about mental health issues, and Jake’s death was the background for it. As my therapist would say, it’s turning something awful into something good. The other part, of course, is to tackle the fun and sometimes not fun part of parenting.

One of my life’s greatest lessons

I am being myself everyday, no excuses.

The name behind the blog is as important as the blog itself. 😀

I have been raising money towards a book getting published. If you would like more info, please go here