I started a new job a month or so ago, another role in mental health rehabilitation and support. This time, I don’t just go out visiting service clients in their homes, supporting them with their ADL’s (activities of daily living) and helping them reach their personal goals and aspirations. The organisation I am working for now has the additional service of a 24 hour facility with clients living on site. These clients require 24 hour care and supervision, because they have a dual diagnosis – this means that they have two separate mental health issues going on, like schizophrenia + intellectual disability, or schizophrenia + obsessive compulsive disorder. These darling folks (and I mean that most sincerely) can’t be left alone for a moment, otherwise they may wander off and do various anti-social things out in the neighbourhood, the details of which I won’t elaborate on. Suffice to say, we have a locked office on the block of housing units that a staff member must man overnight to make sure nobody leaves, and more importantly, make sure nobody comes on site that isn’t supposed to. I’m told this has happened in the past: this is a fairly high crime area, with vandalism and robberies common. This thought comforts us no end at 2am when we’re locked in the teeny little office in the dark watching late-night TV with one eye on the grainy security monitor and one hand clutching a fistful of keys like a set of knuckledusters.
On the whole, this role is turning out to be a little more demanding than I bargained for. I applied for a part-time position. I thought that meant I’d be working part of every week. My employer, however, seems to believe it means part of every day. I’d hate to see how literal a full-time role is. I had no idea I’d even be doing night shifts when I applied, but thought it might be an interesting experience. On receiving my roster, I was surprised to discover I have about six overnight shifts every three weeks, and three of those shifts are consecutive. A Friday, Saturday and Sunday night all one after the other.
My first triple night shift was last weekend. 11pm to 7am, all of it to be done sitting up or walking around, absolutely wide awake. There are rounds to be walked, and paperwork to be signed to say rounds have been walked. I thought I’d be a little scared staying awake there by myself all night, but then I realised that being asleep, or even half asleep there by myself all night would be much, much worse. I packed for myself a lunch bag with appetising snacks, because if there’s anything I know will keep me awake it’s the thought that several kinds of tasty food are available and nearby. I packed my computer, hoping to catch up on a little writing. Over the next three days, I was to experience 24 hours of nocturnal consciousness, interspersed with 24 hours of daytime sleeping, and 24 hours of something weirdly in between these two. A kind of menopausal, mental-ward, twilight zone.
I decided my first night I’d take a few DVD’s to work to watch during my eight hour vigils. My kids suggested such horror slash drama epics as Gothika (set in a mental hospital, I’m told), Jason Returns (featuring a certain psychotic homicidal maniac)and perhaps even One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest (where a sane but pathologically irritating guy fakes mental illness and ends up with a lobotomy). I’ve since decided on a black ban against any movie with Jack Nicholson in it, because when the gentleman from unit 4 comes shuffling up at 2am to tell me through the crack in the door that Johnny has arrived, my screams might just wake up the whole building.
At first, I seemed to be coping quite well. The Friday night shift came and went. I slept after arriving home about 7:15am Saturday morning, then got up about 11am and did some stuff until having an early dinner at 6pm and heading back to bed. I got up at 10:30pm and got ready for work at 11pm. Then I did it again for Saturday night and Sunday night.
Monday morning. Everyone was getting ready for work and school when I got home at 7:15am. On the weekend when I’d arrived home they’d all been schlepping around and I’d felt great about sleeping during the day knowing they were all there somewhere. However, on Monday, everyone was busy getting ready to make off into the world, and going to bed felt to me to be a very boring and antisocial thing to do. I felt like I had passed through weary, beyond tired, kicked exhausted’s ass and now I was all fired up and ready to roll. I bounced around my family like a puppy begging to go walkies. “Where ya goin’? Where ya goin’? Gosh ya lookin’ awesome! Wow, what a beautiful day, don’t ya think!? Where ya headed? Goin’ out? Can I come? Can I come?” The last one to leave kicked me off their leg after dragging me up the hall, and locked the door from the outside shouting back at me, “Go to bed!” My eye-motes were vibrating. Look at the sunshine! Look at the blue-ness thingy! I’m so thirsty. I feel so skinny! I don’t need to sleep, I need eggs. I have a car! I can go out and drive and get eggs! That’s not me that smells, no way. I’m going for eggs!”
I found eggs, poached ones, two of them, on top of a slice of sourdough on a very white plate beside a rustic hand-thrown terracotta receptacle which held about a cup of home-made baked beans. There was garnish. And relish made from an exotic berry. My coffee hummed in my teeth while I batted my eyelids at the staff flirtatiously. I watched a video clip on my phone without the sound with my jaw hanging open, and read my local paper with the perplexity of a jet-lagged tourist – what day is it here? I then gave the lady at the cash register all my petrol money for my breakfast, and went looking for an art supplies shop.
Don’t even ask. But I did spent enough to get five holes punched in a customer loyalty card.
Now, I know better what to do. On the next post-triple-shift Monday morning, I must have an arrangement in place with someone I trust to take my credit card and my car keys away, and put tasty snacks in my bed, to which they must forcibly direct me, after they have me change out of my underwear, just in case I hallucinated I was camping on Saturday night and have been turning them inside out ever since. I have also closed all my internet shopping accounts, just in case. I think probably 95% of purchases made on Ebay are by shift workers after their 36 hour rotation.
I also have a theory that when the disciples spoke in tongues in the upper room, it wasn’t so much the holy spirit as the fact they’d pulled a couple of chronic all-niters. No sleep, three nights in a row, and not long since having been with someone claiming to be Jesus Christ? Now that sounds very much like my weekend on the ward.by