By Rebecca Grossman-Kahn
So, what do you do, they ask me, at a dinner party (this only happens on the coasts because in Minnesota no one inquires about your profession, or your personal life at all), and I say I work in a psychiatric hospital and when I say this, the guests imagine asylums of the past: looming brick buildings, sprawling lawn worn thin, so I want to say instead, picture this: a modern, eight-story hospital building identical to the one where you had your appendix taken out, with the same overpriced parking, the same crowded elevator banks, the same confusing hallways from hospital additions over the years, the same antiseptic smell, the same bustling shift change at 3pm, the same break room with burnt coffee and someone’s leftover cupcakes; if modern day psychiatric units were shown on TV as much as cardiac wards are, I wouldn’t have to help you imagine this, but the guests are still trying to make sense of where I work while not spilling the wine they’re pouring, so they say oh how interesting, so you treat things like, um, well, what exactly? because the people who have never had a loved one hospitalized for mental illness cannot hide the confusion—in the twitches of their eyebrow I see them trying to work out why people go to the hospital for mental health but before I can reply a woman I’ve just met chimes in with mental health, it’s so important, I’m actually in that field too, I’m on the wellness committee at work because she thinks mental health is corporate-sponsored yoga, insurance-covered therapy sessions, work-life balance, and I nod with a strained smile on my lips, wondering how to convey what I do each day; every morning I meet people whose thoughts or feelings have become too intense to endure alone; this is the best way to explain it, I think, without mentioning suicidal thoughts as we are passing around the salad again; my job is wading through suicidal thoughts with people—some thoughts are thick and full like a stew, bubbling over heat, some trail you like an eager pet, or perhaps they catch you suddenly, like the dust that emerges from under the radiator, or else they hibernate between thick stacks of mail uncollected between the front door and screen; others are wispy and light, like cotton candy; sweet, you say? the dinner guests cock their heads to the side and their eyes grow big over their plates, and everyone has finished eating and the host wonders how long before bringing out dessert; yes, sweet and pink, a comforting companion, an out, an escape from today’s pain; the thoughts try to stick around, but in the hospital we find ways to give them less power, less momentum, but there is still confusion: So, what is it you do exactly? Well, I sit beside humans during their most painful periods of life and we do yoga, too, but we’re also talking about reasons to stay alive, and how does a dinner party conversation follow from there?
Rebecca Grossman-Kahn is a psychiatrist and writer living in the Midwest; you may find her touring historic houses, listening to samba music or entertaining her terrier.