The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote and submitted for the Harry C. Solomon Award in 1985. In the hubris of my 24 years, I crafted a reflective essay for what was almost certainly meant to be a scientific writing competition at the community mental health center where I worked. At the time, I was part of the 4:00 to midnight shift on a residential unit (“The Inn”), supporting about 50 adult “residents” who were living with serious mental illnesses.
I rediscovered this last year while clearing file cabinets. It’s not the essay I would write today, but more than 30 years out, it holds up. It still asks questions worth pondering. I wrote about people living on a psych ward, but I see lessons for all of us…
…At work I am often reminded of a refrain that marked my childhood: “If you change your point of view, you will see something new.” Tipped back on his heels, hands thrust in his pockets, and a playful look on his face, my father would tease us with his “clue” as we feverishly hunted for our Easter baskets.
Somewhere along the line I absorbed that modicum of folk wisdom. Last year I found myself thinking and saying the same thing to the Inn residents as they hunted for their Easter candy. The staff had bought colorfully wrapped candy (safe from the dirt and infestations of an old and much-used building), and made baskets out of paper cups wrapped in tissue paper. A modest affair, to be sure, but it seemed like fun and we hoped the residents would enjoy the diversion.
While the residents ate in the cafeteria, we hid the candy around, without making much of an attempt to hide things in the rather barren surroundings what offered few hiding places to begin with. I was quite pleased with the colored eggs nestled in the TV antennae, the malted milk ball masquerading as a ping pong ball, and the foil-wrapped bunnies squatting in every cabinet handle. I was more intrigued, however, by how the hunt began to take shape.
The residents were all very sporting about making sure that everyone got enough goodies to fill his or her cup. They cheerfully swapped tidbits to get the greatest possible stash of their favorite candies. There was even some friendly rivalry. But something was missing. The concept of The Hunt as I had known it as a child was simply not there. Only the most obvious goodies were located, and where I had established patterns, as with my bunny-lined cabinets, only one or two candies were taken. With some extra hints and good-natured “hot and cold,” the residents gradually located most of the treasures.
As I picked up the remainders I wondered what my father would have thought of the hunt. I was struck by the superficiality of the search. I wondered if the residents’ unwillingness or inability to find the small candies had something to do with their need to reduce the amounts of external stimuli to which they are subject. The Inn, and indeed the whole Center, is full of often disconcerting sights and sounds. Perhaps, the residents limit what they see and hear to help them cope with everything that goes on around them. So they exclude, simply not see, the bits of bright candy that to any casual observer would seem quite obvious. Certainly such a habit might be understandable if one were beleaguered with sights and sounds from within! As an institution we had done little, it seemed, to encourage the residents to look outside themselves, to move their primary focus from themselves to anything beyond that. Our participation in this very Western tradition of introspection and analysis fosters such single-mindedness. For all our social conscience, we had not provided the residents with many opportunities or incentives to explore, interact with, or challenge the world outside.
The lack of attention paid to the patterns posed other possibilities. Here and there a bunny was gone, but no one had gone down the length of the cabinets to get all ten of the candies. In an odd way it seemed consistent with the repeated questions staff members get about the dinner hour, where and when clean sheets can be found, and when Group Walk will leave. The residents cannot or do not assume predictability or patterns as an integral part of their lives. Perhaps the only patterns with which they are really familiar are the paths and recurrences of their own illnesses, hardly positive incentives for attention to repetitions generally.
The residents proved themselves remarkably inflexible that Easter. Old “patient” blinders, the narrow ways in which they had become accustomed to seeing their surroundings, were not discarded on the occasion of The Hunt. As a result, they saw little what was new…