Secret Lives

Secret Life of a Psych Ward Security Guard

My brute strength and wrestling skills made me a natural fit to maintain order. But what I really wanted to do was help people.

Secret Life of a Psych Ward Security Guard

We slipped in the blood that made the linoleum even slicker. It covered my opponent, who could have wrestled in my weight class in high school a few years earlier. If I’d had a hold on him in a double-leg takedown in front of a Saturday night crowd at my Pueblo County, Colorado, high school in 1968, it might have been a draw. But he was shirtless, the blood running out of two wounds on his forearms where he had tried to pull out the veins with a contraband pencil, making him slippery and hard to grab. It covered his face and the walls where he had dragged his hands. He grunted as I lunged forward, trying to grab him by the legs and take him down. It was a move that had become instinctive to me long before my job working as a security guard at the state hospital.

I had become a wrestler growing up on a ranch. “You kids need to get out of my way and get in the pen,” my dad would say to my cousins and me as he and my uncle got ready to brand and castrate the young steers.

“You gotta chase them down, push them down like this,” he’d say as he cornered the young calves and flipped them over onto their sides, their loud cries bringing tears to my eyes as I secured their legs with rope like he had taught me. We used to bottle-feed them, and they became like pets.

I felt so bad for them when I saw the red-hot branding iron come down to burn their skin. I covered their faces with a wet cloth to stop the calves from screaming as he branded them. “Calms ’em down,” my dad would say. When he hit them with the branding iron, they would try to get away. I’d have to reach over to the side of them and grab their fur and lean back and pick their legs up off the ground and jump on them like I watched my dad do.

“I don’t like doing that, Nonna,” I told my grandmother, who lived with us.

“You care a lot and that’s not a bad thing,” she said. “But we have to do this to take care of the animals.” She herself was a healer, known across the rural counties of southeastern Colorado for “laying hands,” as she called it, to cure the sick.

But I had to learn to use physical strength on the ranch and at school. I went to a Catholic school, where I was an outcast because most of the kids were Hispanic or Italian and I was a freckled Irish kid. In fifth grade, a group of kids chased me around for a month until they cornered me. The wall of kids opened up and the ringleader came charging at me. I dropped him down like one of the calves and started pounding his head with my fists. I started crying because of the stress of being chased. They saw how crazed I was. After that, no one bullied me.

By the time I got to high school, being on the wrestling team felt natural. But I still had to hide my preference for defending myself without using my fists. I might not like it, but brute strength was the only language that people around me understood.

So by the time I faced that patient, who I’ll call Thomas, I had learned how to react — how to restrain people and animals that were stronger than me.

After serving in the Army for a year, the uniform and structure of being a security officer appealed to me. In my small town, it was a choice between security at the state hospital or one of the many prisons, or working at the steel mill. But I had always felt drawn to helping others, even if it wasn’t considered manly. The state hospital seemed like the most likely place to be able to help people.

Thomas had landed in the state hospital after he stole a car and told the cops that he had heard voices telling him to do it. Soon after, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and sent to our unit.

“I loved playing football in high school, and I had hoped to play in college,” he told me when I had to escort him to the hospital’s surgery unit after the fight. On his meds, he was a gentle and intelligent kid, and he was out of place with some of the older patients whose meds made them shuffle and sleep most of the day or sit in front of the TV without really seeing it. We called it the Thorazine shuffle.

All of the patients in the forensic unit were there because they had committed a crime — murder, child abuse, assault, robbery. Thomas had stolen vehicles idling outside convenience stores and driven them across state lines, later telling the judge that voices made him do it.

“My girlfriend and I and all our friends would go to the swimming hole on weekends,” he told me. “We’d have a bonfire and talk about going to college. I wanted to play football for the University of Alabama. I was a pretty good wide receiver and was invited for a tryout there.” I felt sorry for him, this good-looking kid who’d had such a bright future. If not for hearing voices, he’d be a healthy and productive person. But he was being mentally tortured and striking out. I wished I could help him.

Instead, I had to treat him like an animal. Even though I realized that putting him in a seclusion room or restraining him or any other patient was necessary for their safety and the staff’s, I felt uncomfortable being the muscle behind it. Back then the nurses were all women, and I followed them on their rounds. But I had no gun, no safety button like they do now. Only brute strength and my wrestling skills.

A patient ran down to the nurses’ station across from the security desk where I sat. “You need to come down to the bathroom,” he said. “There’s a fight.”

We ran into the bathroom and Thomas and another patient were punching each other. “You motherfucker, you molested me last night,” Thomas was screaming. “The air conditioner told me you did it.” I stepped between them and pushed them apart. The other patient quit, but Thomas continued to swing at us as we tried to separate them.

“What’s going on, Thomas?” one of the nurses asked. Her calmness made him stop swinging. “Are you hearing voices?” He said yes. He stepped back against the wall and sunk down to the floor. The patients listened to the nurses. They respected them. They knew they were there to help.

We put Thomas in the seclusion room after the bathroom fight. That was when he tried to pull the veins out of his arms, with a pencil he’d snuck into the seclusion room. As blood poured out of his forearms, I lunged for the pencil, which he was holding like a weapon. I did a chop on his forearm, knocking it down between his legs so I could grab his wrists, which were slippery with blood. He was holding the pencil so tight it snapped when I finally got it away from him.

I finally wrestled him into a push-up position. When I pushed him down toward the floor, his shrieks reminded me of the calves who balled and cried out when they were branded. But in the moment, I couldn’t let that interfere with me trying to get control of him; it was only by restraining him that I could help him return to himself. No matter the illness that affected his brain, we were both human beings. I knew I had to subdue him and save his life before he bled out. I could see the blood squirting from the arteries in his arms and knew we didn’t have much time before he died.

Nurses and techs were surrounding us, trying to get control of him, but he was holding on and was so strong that he was able to throw a nurse against the wall. She lost her footing in the blood and fell down hard.

I finally got control and helped the five nurses who’d run into the room get him on the bed and restrain him with leather handcuffs and elbow restraints. He spat at us, trying to bite, so a nurse put a pillowcase over his face to calm him down. His wounds were so deep, he had to be taken into surgery.

I escorted the psychiatrist into his room when she came in to evaluate him afterward. “I was tired of hearing the voices, so I thought if I took more [medication], they would go away,” he said. His arms were bandaged up and he had an IV in to replace the blood he’d lost.

“I felt bad about having to restrain you,” I told Thomas once he was stable and back in the open ward. “But I had to do it for your safety and ours.”

“I understand,” he said. “I feel worse about throwing that nurse down, and I know you were just there to help me.”

Seeing him stable was something I felt good about. I wanted to help others get better. That’s when I decided to become a nurse. As a security guard, I was taught to face aggression with aggression. But that wasn’t who I was. I didn’t like confrontation, even though I had to act the part. In the forensic ward, one patient had killed both of his parents. One had raped and killed a hitchhiker. One had shanked and killed someone. So I had to walk around and show them all that I was the man. And if you fucked with me, I was going to take you down. I had to act that way, because if I showed weakness, they would try to take advantage of me.

But as a nurse, I could be myself. I wanted to help people get better, even if all I could do was clean wounds and change dressings. Growing up on a ranch prepared me for taking care of amputated legs and holding a beating heart.

In my heart, I was a helper. I had been since I was a little boy. I had watched my Nonna lay her hands on the steady stream of people who showed up at the ranch well into the night: cancer patients, pregnant women, farmers with bad backs and pulled tendons. I knew as I watched her that I wanted to help people in pain.

So I went back to school to become a nurse, running the local newspaper press at night and going to school during the day.

After my training, I returned to the same state hospital, this time as a psychiatric nurse.

“How are you, Austin?” asked one of the patients, who I’ll call Henry. “How was your day off? I missed you,” he said as soon as I unlocked the heavy steel doors. I hadn’t even gone three steps when Henry, a tall thin guy in the same flannel shirt he wore every day, suspenders, and pants that revealed white socks, stuck his hand out to shake mine. Other men, mostly in their 50s and 60s — lifers we called them — got up from their seats in front of the TV or the card table where they played poker and surrounded me like I was a rock star coming off stage. They wanted a handshake, a hand on the shoulder, a hug, and as I walked, I took the crowd of men with me to the nurses’ station where I’d take over the graveyard shift. I knew I’d be supervising many of their showers that evening — I could smell the funk. I had been working with Henry on his daily hygiene, making sure that he brushed and flossed his teeth.

“Hey Austin, look, I changed my socks!” he told me as I got the chart from the departing nurse. Sometimes it was hard to believe that these men were here because they had committed a crime. On their meds, they could be gentle and childlike, like Henry was. Or they could act out for no apparent reason — chairs, tables, and fists flying — requiring restraints and seclusion.

Henry had been in the state hospital on and off for 40 years. Like Thomas, he had started hearing voices in his early 20s and been diagnosed with schizophrenia. His chart was full of crimes he had committed — robbery, breaking and entering, assault — because the voices told him to, he said.

But no matter how stable he was on his meds and how many times he was released, he always found his way back to the unit. At 60, he considered it his home.

“I tell the doctors I’m hearing voices when I rob a store or rip some guy off on the street,” he told me one day during our weekly therapy sessions. “To be honest, I’m not hearing voices anymore. I’m just afraid.”

“Do you think it would help if you came in here once a week to talk to me?” I asked him. “That way you won’t feel so alone out there as you’re getting settled.”

For the next year or so, I continued to see Henry, who was able to get a job at one of the grocery stores in town. I visited him at the halfway house and then at his apartment.

He didn’t return to the state hospital after that. And when I saw him in town, he always came up to shake my hand.

I still see Henry and another guy I’ll call Bobby, who I threw over my shoulder as a security guard as he was bleeding out from a razor blade he had used in the bathtub. Later, I met with him regularly as a psych nurse, to make sure he wasn’t hearing voices. Forty years after that day that he attempted suicide, I see him at Chipotle. We nod at each other. Knowing that I’ve helped these men live out in the world without harming themselves or others is the reward of being a healer. It beats taking someone down any day.