Long ago, and not so far away, I worked in a mental hospital. I was working my way through college, which should give you an idea of how long ago this was. It paid about the same as burger-flipping, but it was infinitely more interesting, and of course I learned a lot of people skills.
I also learned a lot about myself, and the kind of career I wanted to have, one where I could do some good in the world. And that indirectly relates to how I got all mixed up with credit unions.
Plus, working in a mental hospital for four (and a half, if I’m being honest) years gives you a lifetime of interesting stories. A few are even suitable to tell over dinner.
Here’s one of my favorites:
First, a little background for those who haven’t been in the brain game.
Delusions are very common with certain types of mental illness. They’re basically false beliefs that a brain comes up with when it’s not working quite right. Delusions usually fall into very consistent patterns.
One common type of delusion is a “grandiose” delusion, the belief that you’re incredibly powerful or privileged in some way. The exact content depends mostly on culture.
Remember those stale old comedy routines featuring a guy who thought he was Napoleon? That sort of delusion really happened back when Napoleon was the most powerful person on Earth. Later on, Hitler or Churchill delusions were common, and I worked with a few folks who thought they were the US President.
But the most common and consistent grandiose delusions by far are religious. People with a Christian background tend to think they are saints, Jesus, or even God depending on how serious things have gotten.
It’s important to remember that people with delusions are just like anyone else; they’re doing the best they can with what they have. It’s just that their brain chemistry is misfiring a bit. They’re rarely dangerous to anyone else, but it also doesn’t do any good at all to argue with someone having delusions, and it can do harm.
The best course is not the feed the delusions, but find ways to stay neutral and work within the person’s worldview to help the person stay safe, keep their dignity, and get treatment. It’s a delicate balance — and it’s fascinating work.
The delusion du jour
I usually worked on the admissions unit because it was more interesting and fast-paced. This was a unit with locked doors and a super-safe, well-supervised environment where we could handle just about anything. When a new patient was admitted, this was their first stop until we figured out the overall plan.
It was a very busy day, and there was a whirlwind of new admissions. We had to shuffle patients around a few times. Some folks needed to be by themselves in rooms where we could keep a closer eye on them, but some were OK to move to double rooms further from the nursing station.
However, during our report to the next shift we suddenly realized to our horror that we had put two men in the same room who had the exact same delusion.
That’s right, both guys thought they were Jesus. It’s pretty much the most popular delusion around here, so it wasn’t unusual to have a Messiah or two around. We went pale. Competing delusions can turn into some pretty nasty arguments.
A couple of us raced to the room and peeked in. The two men were having a lively, casual conversation with a Bible open, but they were smiling and relaxed. We tiptoed away and wondered what would happen.
The great compromise
About a half hour later, they emerged to announce that they had discussed the matter, prayed, re-read some parts of the New Testament, made some notes, and had come to the conclusion that Jesus B was the True Messiah, and Jesus A was actually John the Baptist.
We didn’t have a single problem with either, and as they got back on their medications. moved to the open unit, and recovered over the next few weeks, the two remained roommates and fast friends.
I never saw either again, but I suspect they’re still good friends.