February 1st, 2012

Traveling on winter’s broad plain

Words written in the first week of January meant to be read a month later stand on the threshold of the unknown, always a mystery, but more consciously so at the beginning of a new year. As the last scraps of confetti from last night’s New Year’s Eve celebrations are swept up and carted away to wherever such things are taken, the sun is already shining in a cold blue sky on the sharp outlines of a snowless winter landscape. We are but a grand parade and a few more bowl games away from the official end of the holiday season but the business of the world goes on, as it should, heedless of those of us who have taken a break from our usual routines at the end of the calendar year.

Whether we chose to work through the holiday season or to pause, rest, and reflect on the lessons of the past twelve months, we are solidly into the new year by the time we reach February.

To think of roads, landscapes, and reaching a waypoint on a journey when describing the rhythm of a year is to view passing time through a topographical lens, a habit of thinking I freely admit. Somewhere around Thanksgiving, the terrain starts getting interesting with steep rises, short plateaus and precipitous falls. We level out for a few weeks in the beginning of December but soon notice the ground rising gently beneath our feet and then more sharply to a high plateau. We scrabble over the ledge to a place where the world seems to slow down until the drop of a crystalline ball or display of fireworks marks the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. We slip down the far side of the plateau onto the long plain of January, February and March stretching unbroken to the horizon. This is dull, flat land, devoid of interesting features that might distract us from the serious business of life and work. We invent holidays to relieve our tedium and in February come up with the celebration of a large rodent who predicts the weather and a festival of love a few weeks later. For the most part, the road ahead is straight and clear, a stretch of landscape ideal for applying ourselves to our work as psychologists in the variety of settings where we practice.

Our work begins as if for the first time at the beginning of the new year. In the elevator on that first morning, there is something different about the way we greet our colleagues. For a brief time, we have slipped out of our usual roles and before we find them again, we are a just a handful of men and women putting our private lives on hold to keep the hospital running. What surprises are waiting for us in a week’s worth of emails, telephone messages and the comings and goings of patients from the wards? Someone asks the question out loud and we exchange knowing smiles and quiet laughter.

Minutes later, you are sitting in morning rounds hoping not to hear any bad news about your patients, trying to remember what you already knew about some of them, listening for word that someone has been discharged as planned and wondering when you will be able to sit down to begin to get to know the new arrival. For now, you know only that she is paranoid, irritable and unwilling to talk. It’s just as well because you are due on another unit to try to interview someone before a commitment hearing at which you have been asked to testify. He was too angry to talk the last time you tried but moods change quickly on an inpatient unit and you never know what a new day will bring.

On your way out the door, you see the newly admitted patient asking for paper at the nurse’s station. Because you had a quick glance at the medical record, you know she likes to write and, seizing the opportunity to make a connection, you tear off two sheets of paper from your pad and introduce yourself as the unit psychologist. She says that she is a psychologist too and explains that she needs the paper to record a psychoanalysis. Ah, now here’s a person who speaks your language, so you ask if she will discuss her findings with you and agree to meet in an hour. You use the intervening time to participate in a team meeting where you make your pitch to interview the man awaiting his hearing and, for reasons you cannot begin to understand, he agrees.

The rest of the day finds you moving between two units, alternating interviews with the same two people, and trying hard not to be confused by their equally complicated, somewhat similar, yet very different delusional systems. You fit in a regular therapy appointment, a microwaved slice of pizza for lunch, an administrative meeting and end the day with a closer look at your 56 emails. The good news is that you have 30 applications from graduate students who want to join your training program. The bad news is that you have 30 applications and almost as many interviews and decisions to make in the month between the writing and the reading of the words for this column. You will do it all and more that you don’t even want to think about now in the first month of the new year. The road ahead is straight and clear with no distractions and already you are looking forward to Groundhog Day.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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