You know how sometimes you make mistakes but you don’t know how big they actually are until some time later? This was the case the day I caused a “code red” with a kid named David.
It was 1995. I was just out of the University of Washington. While at University I knew a lot about what I wasn’t going to do. I knew I wasn’t going to be an engineer, I knew I wasn’t going to be a doctor, I knew I wasn’t going to be a scientist. What I didn’t know was what I was going to do. So I became a sociology major.
Basically I figured out what I was pretty good at, decided that getting a degree in sociology probably wouldn’t take me any longer than 4 years and convinced myself that that I’d have plenty of options for jobs when I graduated. As it turned out I was sort of right. I did have plenty of options. I worked at Eddie Bauer as a stock guy, at the local bike shop, DJ’d wedding receptions and took on-call work as a “mental health specialist” at the Fairfax Psychiatric hospital.
As a mental health specialist I cleaned up messes, charted on patients, kept the peace and put people in restraints when things got out of hand. Basically, I was crowd control. From time to time I would get to lead a therapy group or have one on one time with the patients. Sometimes, bizarrely, the doctors would ask me, based on the charting that I had done, if I thought that they should raise or lower the amount of whatever drug a patient was taking to manage their symptoms. I certainly didn’t know and I got the feeling that nobody else there had much of a clue either.
I mostly worked with the kids. It was hard for me to see adults not have their act together. I still kind of looked up to adults so I worked on the adolescent unit whenever I had a choice. I thought I was pretty good at it. I felt like the patients trusted me and being a pretty naïve 24 year old kid from a small town I assumed I could trust them as well. The problem is… They are in there for a reason.
Because I was an “on-call” employee I worked a lot of holidays. On Easter weekend of 1995 I was in the middle of a 3 day shift. I was working on the adolescent unit again and I had been talking a lot to a 17 year old kid named David. He was a smart kid and I didn’t really know why he was in there except that he had been picked up on the street in Seattle and he was from Canada. This kid was scary looking. He as about 6’3 and over 200 pounds. Long black hair, huge deep eyes and a blank face most of the time. He had been stretching his ear lobes with chapstick containers and as I found out later he liked to wear a long black trench coat. He was an imposing figure and the strategy on the unit was mostly to keep him happy so that we didn’t have to deal with him until he got shipped back to Canada. When I came in around noon on Easter he was in the “quiet room”. This room was about the size of a closet with one window in the door and padded walls. No place to sit except the floor. I was bummed to see him in there because we had had a good day the day before. Placing someone, or in his case convincing him to go into the quiet room, was a smart move for the morning staff because they didn’t have enough people there to deal with a kid like that if things escalated.
Once the day shift got there we decided that we had enough people to deal with the situation. The plan was that we were going to try to talk him out of the quiet room and get him to spend some time in his room until everyone felt safe again. Because I had a bit of a relationship with him it was decided that I’d be the one to talk to him. The success of this plan depended on the conversation that he and I could have. If it went well he got to go back to his room, if it went poorly he stayed in the quiet room for a while longer.
My first mistake was not reading the situation well. When I looked into the little window in the door he just stared back at me. Dark eyes locked on mine. My second mistake was stepping all the way into the little room with him. It was a small room with no room for anyone to help if things went badly. Things went badly.
I stepped into the little room and started to say something like “Hey man, let’s figure out how to get you out of here…” when he lunged toward me and started hitting me in the arm. His arm jack-hammering up and down onto my shoulder. He hit me 3 or 4 times before the other two guys behind me managed to wedge themselves into the little room. Now it was a full on “Code Red”. Staff from all over the hospital came running to help. Eventually we got him pinned down and with a lot of effort got him restrained and strapped to a bed. After that he wouldn’t speak. He didn’t yell, he didn’t complain, he didn’t do anything. Once we got him into five point restraints he just lay there staring at the ceiling. I don’t know how long he stayed like that. When I left that evening he was still in 5 points and hadn’t moved.
By the next day he had managed to prove that he could go back to his room. He ended up being on my clipboard so pretty quickly after I got there I found myself in his room to check in. He was sitting on his bed when I walked in and looked up at me and said, “Sorry I tried to stab you.”
This shocked me. As far as I knew he was just hitting me. Turns out he had a pen in his hand and fully intended to stab me in the neck with it. Because the room was so small and I leaned back a little bit when he lunged at me he hit my shoulder instead. And because his hands were sweaty the pen slipped through his hand when he hit my shoulder. I forgave him and got on with my shift. By the time I had another shift he had been sent back to Canada. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again.
Skip to 6 weeks later.
Along with the three jobs I had at the time, I volunteered at a teen shelter in a local church once every couple of weeks. Kids who were living on the street would come in around 5 get some food and we’d pull out the sleeping bags and blankets so that they had a warm place to sleep. Just before we were getting ready to put the food away I see the door open and a large dark haired kid wearing a black trench coat come in. When he looked up I saw the same dark eyes, this time darker due to the dark eye makeup, the large holes in his ears filled with wicked looking spikes. It was David. He’d made his way back from Vancouver and was now standing in the shelter looking for some food and a warm place to sleep.
This worried me. We didn’t have the “resources” available if something went sideways. What if seeing me triggered him in some way? What if he decided he needed to stab someone but this time it wasn’t a pen and it didn’t slip through his fingers? We thought about asking him to leave but decided against it because we didn’t really have a reason. We thought about calling the cops but, again, we didn’t really have a reason. So we decided to see how it went and be ready for anything. There was a pretty good chance that a lot of the kids that were at the shelter had done violent things. We were at risk one way or another.
I talked to David once that night and if he remembered me at all he didn’t let on. Nothing happened. He ate his dinner, played cards with his friend, went to sleep and said thank you when he left in the morning. I assumed that he’d remember me. I assumed that our interaction had meant something to him. He didn’t remember me at all. I didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved.
I didn’t work at Fairfax a whole lot longer but I did work in mental health and with kids some more. I learned a lot. One of the most basic things I learned was that that mental illness is a set of mysteries stacked on mysteries. Even professionals in the field seem to be guessing a lot of the time. If I thought I knew what was going to happen I was likely going to be wrong. With David I was wrong almost every time I saw him.