We all have many sides to us. I could name at least 5 off the top of my head and quite a few more if I thought a little bit more. Today, I want to share a side of me that has rippled through generations of my family and helped to shape and define me into the person I am today.
I am a psychiatric nurse.
Although, I am lucky enough to get to work part time hours as the most important side of me is MOTHER to my daughters, Ava and Allie. This is a story that I can not wait to share with them when they are older and able to understand, so I have chosen to document it now and share it with anyone who is interested in reading it.
My grandfather, Theodore (Ted) Stroup, my Pap Pap – was the director of social work at Torrance State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Torrance, Pa. He retired in the late 1980’s. He had went to Juniata College and then University of Pittsburgh for his master’s in social work. This was after he had served in the Army as a medic during the Korean War and returned to the US.
The entire Stroup family, my grandparents, three uncles, one aunt and my mother, lived directly across from the grounds of Torrance State Hospital. They lived in a white two story home, further down the road, for a number of years, before moving to a one story home about a mile further up the road. There are only a few other houses located on this back road in Torrance. My mom told me that she remembered that patients would garden in her front yard – she was born in 1967. I remember one summer in the 1990’s – my uncles were home and we went to Pap Pap’s for the fourth of July. They were setting off fireworks – and in the distance, you could hear screams and whistles from the patients wanting more.
My Uncle Jeffrey Stroup was 25 years old when he passed away. It is believed that it was suicide, having suffered from schizophrenia (see newspaper clipping below.) My mom was pregnant with me, in December 1985. She had told me that she was closest to Uncle Jeff, he was born in 1960. His sudden, traumatic death ripped a hole into their family that never healed. I am not sure how long he suffered from schizophrenia, or if he had any psychiatric help at all.
My grandma, Betty Jo Stroup, (read more about her here) passed away at age 58. An aggressive abdominal cancer took her life in November 1988, only a month after she had spent a month with us in Massachusetts after my brother, Joshua, was born in September 1988.
This was the second unexpected loss in their family occurring within three years. Yet, I can’t help but think of the what ifs. What if my Uncle Jeff received mental health treatment that saved his life? What if my Grandma had never passed away? Would things have been different for us? What if I never experienced life the way I did?
As a teenager, I dealt with depression, bipolar, substance abuse and multiple suicide attempts. Not firsthand, but as someone who loved that person very much and felt the effects of their mental illness for years. It was scary. It was difficult. At times, I wasn’t sure if I would survive. I have picked up a suicide note and read it. I have seen someone I love sitting in an ICU bed after having their stomach pumped from taking an overdose. I have gone days without knowing if they were dead or alive due to their substance abuse. I have cried for hours at a time and screamed at the top of my lungs because I didn’t know how else to deal with my emotions.
Things are better now for us, thankfully. It took a LONG time to get there, and it was not easy road. It was a bumpy road that was smooth for a little while, but then the next second, we were in a ditch again. The truth is the path to success is not linear, it is absolutely skewed. When dealing with mental illness, you have no idea where the road will take you. Somehow, I can say, that in the face of adversity, that it changed me – for the better.
My Pap Pap had a massive heart attack at home in Torrance, in November 2007. He was transported to UPMC Shadyside, where I was living just a few blocks away, having moved there the year prior after failing out of IUP. This was a 45 mile trip, and there were multiple hospitals not as far. He passed away in the CCU, not even 24 hours after being sent there. I don’t remember much from that day. I do remember him saying, “I should have taken a gun out back,” I’m sure because of the pain he was suffering – not only from his heart attack, but from the past 20 years. We were pen pals, 🙂 and we wrote to each other back and forth each month. I didn’t drive, so it wasn’t easy for me to go visit him, that was something that only happened around the holidays. My last letter to him was that I had decided to go back to school, for nursing. I wrote my nursing school essay about this experience and just how much it shaped me, although then I didn’t know it shaped me so much. Those nurses in the CCU absolutely KNEW he was going to die – they still cared for him, they were there for him. It is something that is so incredible to me. A stranger caring for a patient, knowing that it is their last experience on Earth. I started school in the fall of 2008, at UPMC Shadyside School of Nursing. When I look back at my Pap Pap’s last day of life… it makes my head spin wondering how in the world it happened that way.
Myself, as a nurse, I don’t know that I could ever be able to do what they do. I practically lose my mind if a patient is in a medical code – ask any of my coworkers. In nursing school, I thought I wanted to work in the OR. NICU was interesting and who doesn’t love babies. But, for some reason, at UPMC McKeesport, where I went to my psychiatric clinicals… there was a pull. It caught me totally off guard. I had never once considered that I would go to school for nursing and then work in psych until then. I should have known it would happen though, other nurses and teachers had said that I would change my mind once I had been through all of my clinicals.
I hate the thought of death. It signals an irreversible change is going to occur and change life for everyone. Death is inevitable at times. Old age, comorbidities. Sometimes, it can be stalled or even prevented. As a psychiatric nurse, I hear people tell me that they want to die and at times, I have had patients that had serious attempts and are not even sure how they are living at that moment. As a psychiatric nurse, my job is to love a stranger who might not even love themselves at that moment. Yes, I love psychiatric patients in that I care for them in their worst, scariest days of their lives. Are there patients that as a person, not a nurse, that I do not want to deal with, that I do not like what they did in their past, etc. etc.? Absolutely, but I care for them still. A psychiatric patient is still a person, someone’s mother/father, son/daughter, aunt/uncle, friend – they have people who love them and want them to be happy and enjoy their life.
It has been almost 4 years since I started – May 12, 2014. It is true that my dream job was to work as a psychiatric nurse in a community hospital and I looked at the job openings everyday from when I passed my boards in the fall of 2013 to the day I applied to work there in April. Just knowing that I can make a difference not only in someone’s day, but in their life, and in fact, the lives of the ones who love them… that is why I do what I do. I have the ability to tell someone their life is meaningful. It is not very often that a psychiatric patient or their family say to me, “thank you,” but when they do, it makes everything I have been through worth it to me.