Her: So what do you do at the psychiatric hospital?
Me: Mostly I just wander around and touch people’s junk.
Her: Eeewwww!!!
Me: Well, don’t get the wrong idea; I usually only do it by request.

I sincerely hope I never have to update my resume.

So what’s a girl like me doing in a place like this? It’s a sad tale. The story begins in Anacortes, a beautiful little tourist town where wealthy white people go to retire. I lived there for ten years with my two children, boyfriend-turned-husband, and over the years: one rabbit, three mice, one dog, and several fish.

When we bought the house, hubs understood that I would not make my kids change schools again. We were here to stay. We added a new roof and siding, and updated the interior. There was a large fenced yard and an unusually large garage. The kids’ bedrooms were a converted attic, so they didn’t have vast amounts of headroom. That was okay, though. I wanted them to move on when they grew up, not get too comfortable. The plan worked! Up they grew, and out of the nest they flew.

When the kids were in high school, I went to work for the local hospital a few blocks from our house. I had never before had a job that was so perfectly suited to my skills as this one was. Full of variety, in the middle of everything, but with no blood and guts to contend with. I also worked with such amazing people that I was inspired every day.

After work and on weekends both hubs and I ran on the trails around the three pristine lakes, each about a mile from our house. Or we cycled the 10 mile route to and through a hilly local park where we were rewarded with breathtaking views, often including a pair of resident bald eagles playing in the air currents. On Tuesday nights in Spring, we would swim with some locals as training for triathlons. On Thursdays I hiked with some co-workers up Mt. Erie, the tallest point on the island. Our little hiking group consisted of the Director of Nursing, an ICU nurse, a surgery nurse, and a physical therapist. I was in good hands if I ever took a tumble.

My life had finally turned out perfect, after a long, rocky beginning. I made sure to appreciate each moment. That’s why it was such a surprise when hubs announced that he had grown bored with his job and was feeling the pull of the big city. Opportunities for high level computer security jobs simply do not exist in Skagit County. In his nineteen years with one of the county’s largest employers, he had reached the peak of what he could do for them. He was hungry for a new challenge. I knew all of this, of course. But who quits a job after nineteen years? I was in denial.

Despite my foot dragging, he found a new job in the big city and began commuting two hours each way. I came to the very painful realization that my fairy tale was coming to an end. I, too, found a job down south, then we began the process of selling our house and looking for a new one. That process took several weeks because most of our spare time was spent driving now. Finally we found the place for us!

The overgrown clumps of bamboo in the postage stamp front yard concealed a tiny, dumpy house on the edge of a high-crime area. Home sweet home. We didn’t initially recognize the house’s splendor. The first time we saw it, we may have spent five minutes there before dismissing it and moving on. A day or two passed, then hubs asked to take another look at it. We went back and I began to see that it was every bit as unappealing as the last time we were there. He had other thoughts, though. What if we take out this wall, and add a back door, and a fence, and redo the bathroom? It would be okay then, right? Well, I thought, maybe. It met all of our other criteria. Plus it was cheaper than the other places we had considered. Much cheaper, go figure. We snapped it up.

A couple of weeks later we had given up the Anacortes home I had put so much into and moved into our minuscule, dingy castle. And a storage unit or two. Actually, most of our stuff was in storage, since nothing fit in the new house. We settled in and began our much shorter commutes. Well, hubs had a shorter commute. Being new to the area, I did not have a thorough understanding of the impact that traffic would have on my commute. It was not unusual for me to spend an hour and a half getting home at night. Sometimes it was even longer. This was a far cry from the 5 minute walk to work that I had become used to on the island. I began to experience back pain and developed sympathy for those afflicted with road rage. There was no time to exercise (and really no place, either) so the stress wore on me. I needed to find something closer to home.

My search began on Craigslist. I applied to a governmental agency, whom I never heard back from. I unsuccessfully interviewed at a skin care clinic, where I later became a customer. Then I came across an ad that reminded me a little of my Island Hospital position. Google maps told me it was less than a mile from my house. The only hitch was that it was at a psychiatric hospital. I had never spent time with crazy people before. It sounded a little creepy. Did I have the temperament to work in that environment? I sent the job description to three people I had worked with over the years, who I could trust to give me a straight answer. Two said emphatically, “Yes!”. The other said it depends. I applied, interviewed twice, and was offered the position. I did feel bad about leaving my new job after only eight months. They are good people with a cool little company and they found value in the work I did for them. But in the end, it was no contest.

To my great surprise, I learned that I have spent lots of time around crazy people; I had just never recognized them as having mental illness. The people inside the hospital are often indistinguishable from those outside the hospital. I wish everyone had the opportunity to see that. I believe it would have a positive impact on public perception as well as shaping public policy, but I understand that psychiatric hospitals are not a great tourist destination for a variety of reasons.

That is how I ended up working in a psychiatric hospital. The main function of my job is to look after patient valuables until the patient is discharged, allowing them access when they request it. I also make sure they leave with whatever junk they arrived with. It’s stupidly simple, with zero stress and zero commute. As a bonus, I really enjoy interacting with the patients and seeing their progress.

Author’s Note:

This story came about because the opening conversation really took place and it struck me as funny that it was so misleading, yet still true. As you can probably tell from the background information, it was a difficult time for me as I was rebuilding my life in a new environment that I wasn’t particularly happy with. The job and its location were a bright spot for me at that time.

Fun Fact: I also broke my ankle just before we moved and it took 4 months to heal. You might see that story in the future.