The Last Shift at the Sanitarium

When the Job Became Incompatible with the Rest of My Life, I Retreated to Another

Riverslea, Homewood Sanitarium, Guelph, Ontario

[Some readers asked how I came to work at Homewood Sanitarium and why I left. Here are the answers.]

The end of the university year catapulted toward me. Like most frosh, I had begun my summer job search months earlier—so far, without success. Bob, a fellow psychology major, asked if I might like to work at Homewood. His aunt was the personnel director there; he could put in a good word for me. Although I grew up in Galt, a short drive from the sanitarium, I had never heard of the place. I did some research, included Bob’s name in my cover letter, secured an interview with the aunt, and began work as a nurses’ assistant the first week of May.

In 1967, student nurses were required to spend some of their practical hours in institutions for the mentally ill. That first summer, several informed me that, compared with other psychiatric hospitals in Ontario, Homewood was paradise. A recent letter from my ninety-year-old pen pal confirmed their observations. Pat wrote:

As a student nurse (1949-52) at Victoria Hospital in London Ontario, I spent three months at the old London Psychiatric Hospital. It was a big old grey building up a long walk from Dundas Street. Now gone—thankfully.

One ward I worked on—a women’s ward—had bare pine floors. No finish. Cracks between the boards. One day the patients were fed rotten food. “You know what” [gushed] from them all over the floor and between the cracks. My job—just to keep mopping up the mess.

The beds in the “bed-room” were jammed up close together—just a small cabinet separating them. Windows cracked and broken. COLD!

Another women’s ward. Our job at 7 PM was to put night clothes on the patients and they were then placed in a locked room—to mill around until bedtime.

And yes, I had to hold down people receiving electric shock treatment.

In the 50’s there was a movie called “The Snake Pit” with Olivia de Havilland. It was a pretty true picture of a psychiatric hospital.

The Snake Pit debuted in 1948. A similar themed movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, premiered in 1975. A few of its scenes resonated with some of my experiences at Homewood, but moreso with the tales related by the student nurses.

In spite of the fact that Homewood’s treatments were more advanced and more curative than other asylums, no institution, no matter how prestigious, no matter how forward-thinking its programs, is free from problems. For me, one of those problems related to staff. Mrs Woodward was an older head nurse who worked solely on B2. I had befriended one of short-term patients on that ward. Sandy was a vet student at the university of Guelph. She developed paralysis in both legs and had to wear braces. As a result, the university required her to abandon the large animal program in favour of small animal doctoring. Devastated by the loss of her dream, Sandy sank into a deep depression and was admitted to Homewood. After a few weeks of therapy, Sandy’s mental health improved. She looked forward to returning to her studies. One afternoon, I stopped short in the doorway of Sandy’s room. Mrs Woodward was inside, alone with Sandy. Nurse W accused Sandy of faking her paralysis. Christ-like, she ordered her to remove the braces and walk! Sandy, frightened, obeyed the order. Stumbled a few feet. Fell to the floor in tears. As Mrs Woodward strode from the room, she glared at me…a smug and satisfied.

Two interns from Ireland did their psychiatric practicum at Homewood. In a lunch-time conversation, one of them mentioned how dissimilar staff assignments in their homeland were compared with Canada. Nurses rotated jobs. They worked on the wards for three months, then were assigned other duties for three months. Over time, they said, if someone worked for long periods with the mentally ill, one’s own sanity could be jeopardized. Is that what happened to Mrs Woodward? No wonder that, after my four months each summer, I was eager to leave Homewood and return to academia.

The first two months of my fourth, and final, summer began as usual with shifts on B 2, 3 and 4. Although I had graduated in June, I chose to take an additional university course to up my chances of securing a teaching post. I requested certain shifts and successfully juggled nursing and coursework. That was, until I was posted to the night shift at Riverslea.

Riverslea stood apart from the other mansions that comprised the Homewood complex. A majestic Edwardian edifice, it sat at the bottom of the hill alongside the Speed River. Built in 1848 by James Goldie for his wife and their eight children, it was later bought by Homewood.

I had never been inside the building and heard nothing of its residents except that they were, in some way, “privileged.” For my first, and only, night shift, I arrived at 10:30 PM, parked close to the grand house and proceeded inside. The change-of-shifts meeting took place in the library. What magnificence! A grand room lined with dark wood shelves heavy with tomes. Damask drapes. Sumptuous sofas. And a plush carpet underfoot. One of the privileges that the patients enjoyed was to live in such luxury.

The nurse-supervisor, an attractive, youngish woman, and I were the only overnight staff. Riverslea housed about a dozen patients. All had retired an hour earlier. The evening report included nothing of note. There was little to do except to be there if someone required help. A soon as the afternoon staff left, pretty-nurse announced, “I am going to sleep on one of the sofas. Wake me up six.” Although taken aback, I complied. She was in charge. She could do what she wanted. But, how unfair. Not only did she get to sleep, she would be paid three times my night’s salary to do it.

For a time I wandered. Although soft yellow light bathed the wide corridors, eerie shadows crept up the walls behind over-stuffed settees and Tiffany-styled lamps on mahogany tables. Heavy draperies trapped the gloom. Unpleasant memories of Miss Havisham’s house arose. No cobwebs and ruined wedding feast, but the residents at Riverslea were patients in a mental hospital.

I wished I were a coffee drinker. How I relished the fragrance of that brew. Too bad that my ingesting it caused nausea and tremors. The strong tea I drank had no effect on my alertness. The only other time I had stayed up all night, a young man and I had sat on a rock and watched the sun rise over Lake Muskoka. It’s easier to stay awake with a friend by your side.

At five AM, I vomited. At six AM I awoke sleeping beauty. At eight AM I attended an unsuccessful job interview. A ten AM I fell asleep in a lecture hall.

The following day, I asked Bob’s aunt if I might be exempted from night shifts. “Not possible,” she said. I resigned my position.

**********

In the twelfth grade I worked part-time serving tables in the dining room of a respectable local hotel. The hostess, Miss Priscilla Heyboer, an elderly British woman, insisted that every detail of proper service be observed. Serve from the left; take away from the right. Cutlery one inch from the edge of the table. Linen serviettes folded in such a way that they unfurled swan-like when a diner pick one up by its near corner. We were forbidden to sit down in our white uniforms because, “No one wants to look at a creased bum.” I bought two front-buttoned uniforms. At break times, I opened the bottom half of the closures and sat on a tall stool. Once, two diners at a small table ordered a pot of tea with their meal. I set the pot as near as possible to its “ideal” place. Miss Heyboer emerged from the shadows, gave me a “You-know-better-than-that” smile and gave the couple an apologetic “She’s-new-here” smile, then shifted the teapot one inch to the left.

Over the years, when I needed to make decent money fast, I returned to serving. With the precise training I had, it was easy to find work. I was over-qualified for most of the places where I applied, but that didn’t bother the owners. When I left Homewood in July, Bobby, of Bobby’s Diner, hired me on the spot—even when I told him I couldn’t come in until noon. The place closed at eight. I never worked another night shift.

Sulphites Don’t Like Me–Allergies and Anxiety

After thirty years of teaching teenagers, my health was in jeopardy. I investigated early retirement. The pension plan administrators informed me that I could work just one more semester and retire with only a small financial penalty. Without hesitation, I embraced the option.

On January 31, 2003, I officially left the pedagogical profession. Five days later, I fell down a flight of icy stairs.

I landed hard on the concrete pad at the bottom. A corner of the house hid my body from the street. A row of evergreens hid it from the neighbours. My husband would not return for hours. I had no cell phone. Colder and colder I grew. I recalled Robert Frost’s poem about the world ending in fire or ice. Decided that neither was preferable. Dragged myself up the slippery steps. Managed to push open the back door and slide into the warm kitchen. I checked for injuries. No blood. Just pain.

The medical verdict: significant bruising and a few misplaced ribs. Nothing broken. When the underlying tissues had healed sufficiently, a talented osteopath put my ribs back where they belonged. What remained after her work was a left arm that refused to reach behind my back. An inconvenient restriction. I invested in a few front-closure bras.

Months elapsed without improvement. I consulted Phil, a physiotherapist. He tried a number of techniques, including acupuncture, to increase my range of motion. After a few unproductive sessions, he referred me to Joe, a new hiree who used a technique called Trigenics—a nerve-based treatment system. In my case, Joe used it to lengthen the muscles that had been compromised by my fall. He instructed me to visualize the tissues in my shoulder softening as he pushed his thumb into particular places. I was good at visualization. I enjoyed being part of the cure. After six weeks of therapy I had regained eighty per cent of the movement in my arm.

Joe was much more than a good physiotherapist. He was a spiritual soul-mate. During my sessions we discussed alternative healing modalities, near-death experiences and how emotions affect our health. He loaned me his copy of Candace Pert’s Molecules of Emotion. Although science was never my forte—I earned a D+ in first year biology at university—Pert made the bio-molecular basis for our emotions comprehensible. I was excited to find scientific proof of the interconnectedness of body and mind. A year later, when I had a full-blown panic attack, the information I had gleaned from the book helped me to untangle the complex relationship between food allergies, negative thoughts and acute anxiety.

********

In my twenties, I experienced a panic attack. I didn’t know what it was. Heart raced. Breath stopped. Extremities froze. Thoughts plummeted—fatal illness, unbearable pain, death. Two decades of therapy and a mulish obstinacy to heal, worked to dislodge the disorder.

For several years I was panic free. I suffered from anxiety now and then, but was able to calm the symptoms without drugs. I no longer kept a supply of Xanax on hand. Then, one evening in early 2004, the familiar fear rose up and swallowed me.

My daughter had asked me to help her host a special dinner for a few friends. I wanted to be the perfect mom, create the perfect atmosphere, prepare the perfect food. Instead, my husband delivered me to the hospital emergency room.

Gilles had never witnessed an anxiety attack. He was sure I was going to die. I was sure I was going to die. I heard myself saying so. But, there were two “me’s”—the frantic woman trembling wide-eyed on the gurney and the calm woman watching her and wondering why she was behaving that way.

What had happened?

When I was thirty years old Carl, my first husband, and I vacationed in Vermont. We shared a roadhouse supper: Heineken beer, corned beef sandwiches and potato chips. Upon our return to the hotel I felt unwell. I lay down in our room and Carl joined the small group at the piano bar. Later Carl found me unconscious on the bathroom floor.

At the hospital, I had my stomach pumped. For hours I watched as cloudy fluid and partially digested chunks of food emerged through a clear plastic tube that had been inserted through my nose and down into my belly. After the evacuation, the congestion, abdominal pain, nausea, and dizziness disappeared. The medical team could not explain my reaction. Carl, who had eaten the identical food, was unaffected.

After numerous similar incidents, usually initiated in restaurants and other people’s houses, I grew afraid to eat anywhere except at home. A visit to a sixth allergist finally solved the problem. I was allergic to sulphites, chiefly metabisulphite. That wonder chemical is a preservative used in certain beers, corned beef, and potato chips. It also resides in some dried fruits, baby cookies, maraschino cherries, shredded coconut, balsamic vinegar, wine, and hundreds of other products. In spray form it was used extensively in salad bars. Lettuce put out at noon sat up plump and turgid until ten that night. My body interpreted the chemical as poison and did its best to eliminate it.

Over the years I learned to scrutinize labels, to avoid all foods prepared with a crust or a sauce and to drink alcohol in puritanical moderation.

On the day of Rowan’s party I had snacked distractedly on bits and pieces of whatever lay about. I had drunk a glass of wine supplied by one of Rowan’s guests. I had not paid attention. In retrospect, the wine in the unexamined bottle, likely full of sulphites, probably triggered an allergic reaction. The allergic reaction triggered the panic attack.

Had I been mindful, I could have treated the allergy with Benedryl. It might have prevented the panic. Instead, irrational, catastrophic thoughts took over. My emotions went haywire. Gilles drove me to the hospital.

On a positive note, that 2004 panic attack was my last. For the ensuing sixteen years, I have kept both Benedryl and alprazolam, generic Xanax, on hand at all times. They are my security blankets. If I am certain that I am experiencing an allergy, such as the recent one that dry roasted pistachios produced—who knew that sulphites hid in nuts—I take Benedryl. I also remind myself that I am not going to die and vigilantly monitor my thoughts. I no longer confuse allergies and anxiety. Not usually anyway. They can express themselves in similar ways. When I’m feeling anxious, I have lots of tools to calm me—conscious breathing, mantras, happy memories, self-Reiki, and grounding exercises. Only if these strategies fail to work and it is essential that I be somewhere to fulfill an important obligation do I dissolve the smallest possible dose of alprazolam under my tongue. I do not upbraid myself for being weak. I express gratitude for the drug and for the wisdom to know when to take it.

Meditating with my dog…not sure Pitou is quite into it.