Today’s post comes from life coach, Jay Pignatiello, who has experience working in the psychiatric field. His post highlights the need for human connection and compassion especially in the context of mental health recovery. Thank you, Jay, for sharing with us at www.rtor.org. — Veronique Hoebeke, Associate Editor
From the age of 20, I began working in the mental health field at a long-term treatment center for mental health disorders as a Recreational Therapy Worker. The title simply meant that I would participate in the activities around the facility, specifically on the long term patient floor and help to document the progress and attendance. A bit of advice I was given early on was not to get too close to the residents, because many of them would die or leave. The advice lingered through much of my training, and through the beginning of my natural schedule. The residents didn’t seem to like me much, my co-workers looked at me as inept, and I felt as though I was quickly proving that I wasn’t any good in health care, and my job would soon be taken and given to somebody with more social skills.
A man who I’d seen wheeling residents around in wheelchairs came in crying one day, “I have lung cancer, my god, I’ve only got two months to live. I don’t want to die,” as the shock stung from hearing this, another resident replied, “Shut it Jack, we’re all dying, and you’re gonna ruin my day with this sad talk. Suck it up.” My first instinct was to offer “Jack” my condolences and to give him a free snack from the canteen. Group was going on, and I could see the look of despair in Jack’s face, so I approached him with a coffee and a cigarette and asked him to walk with me.
Outside, I let him vent. Everything from his estranged daughter to the love of his life being dead, he broke down and opened up to me. Although I had no actual training as a therapist, I knew well enough from my own struggles that all Jack wanted was to feel heard and understood. Regardless if I agreed with the principles of which he spoke about heaven or an afterlife, I kept eye contact and allowed him to speak his piece. Afterwards, he felt better and went back to group to process his day with his therapist. This was a turning point for my work in mental health as I began to see people with their problems wrapped inside of themselves; as though the entire floor was carrying heavy baggage that they wanted to let go of.
From cigarettes to buying snacks, I began to look at myself not just as a professional but as a fellow human being. The clients began trusting me, and through this trust our program attendance grew, as well as our participation and even the level of energy on the floor. There grew a cohesion, as everyone slowly began to feel a part of rather than suffering separately. I take little credit in the latter, but I do think that having somebody who wasn’t their therapist listening to them was healing in and of itself.
I was promoted to doing the medical document filing for the state, in which I was assigned interviewing each client about their needs and wants on the floor. I listened intently, making notes in my notebook, and eventually fought to have a music group implemented on the floor with a standing budget of 500 dollars a month. We bought guitars, we bought a CD player, we bought some CDs, and we even bought decent snacks for everyone who would attend. The cool sounds of John Coltrane seemed to be a remedy for recovery like no other, as our first music group was nearly 30 of the clients attending at once.
Compassion isn’t something that can be taught overnight, nor is it easily taught over the course of a lifetime; compassion is a skill that’s either present, or it isn’t. Through our own internal struggles, we can learn to bridge the gap between professional and patient. In the recovery industry, there’s an unspoken rule, similar to the “don’t get attached,” undertones of the ward of which I worked. People die, especially in recovery from drugs and alcohol; nobody knows when the last time they’ll truly see somebody is, and for many, this causes them to build their wall and allow it to stand. But the principles of recovery are to teach and demonstrate a level of compassion, and so working in recovery, I’ve adopted an attitude of sorts that I feel is reflective upon the way of which every person should be treated. If it’s the last time I see somebody, I’d like it to have been from a point of understanding, not cold and slightly out of reach.
Whether it’s working in mental health, or working in addiction recovery, there’s no right or wrong way to go about your job. For me, what’s made me a better worker is my capacity for being compassionate and allowing people to speak their truths without judgement. Through the years, I’ve dealt with loss on both sides, having been in recovery and worked in recovery, and though each loss gets a little easier, there are some that I’ll never truly recover from. Despite this inevitable feeling, to practice compassion is to allow myself to heal and to grow from my own demons.
Jay works with Crown View Co-Occurring Institute, a facility for depression in San Diego, CA. He enjoys writing, playing music, and attending concerts in his free time.
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