Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Advice For Comets

I watched a comet burn up this week. It was a most impressive flame-out, with raised voices, threats of legal action, hints of physical violence and tears.

The inmates, on the other hand, were relatively well-behaved.

I've seen many health care professionals come and go through the years. As the token employee assistance person (unofficial, uncompensated) I've provided supportive counselling (translation: been ranted at) by some of them. I struggle to know what to say, but over the years I've learned a few general principles.

When you're new to the correctional environment you have to go through an adjustment process that's analogous to the Kubler-Ross five stages of dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

1. "I'm working out of a bare cell? No way!"

2. "I'm not going to be treated like this!"

3. "If you want me to do X, you need to give me Y."

4. "Why do I stay here? I should just leave."

5. "It's pretty cool when my patient gets better."

Not all people go through all stages or in the same order, or sometimes it happens all at once pretty fast.

The main thing to know is that you're working in a bureacracy, and bureacracies are notoriously slow beasts to turn. You can't be a fighter pilot in a jumbo jet. Some professionals hit the bureaucracy with guns blazing, making a virtual declaration of war, and burn to cinders in the atmosphere within the first few months. If recent American politics can teach us anything, it's the importance of building a coalition prior to taking action. Your coalition is your team of co-workers. Now, your co-workers may (in your opinion) be inebriated incompetent dim-witted dickheads (I wish I were as eloquent as Shiny Happy Person. She would say this so much better than I could---I believe she'd use the terms 'fuck-wit' or 'git' which just don't get captured by American colloquialisms) but they are your battle-buddies and they're all that you've got. If you antagonize them they will let you go down in a hail of bullets. Or worse, turn weapons on you themselves. Your credibility depends upon tact and restraint. Translation: don't even try to start "writing people up" until you've been there a year or more.

At some point you're going to come to believe (or to witness) that this bureacracy rewards mediocracy and punishes malcontents. Once you hit this stage, you have three choices: you can throw up your hands and walk away, you can bury your head in the sand or you can change tactics. More importantly, you can take time off. You can cool down. You can go home and hug your kids (or your dogs or your cats). But the thing you should never, ever forget is:

We need you. You're smart. You care. And you've saved a few lives while you were here.

I hope that's enough to bring you back.

Overheard: "Are you a psychiatrist? You walk like a psychiatrist."