by Colleen Wells

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(Names and identifying characteristics have been changed.)

When I told my therapist I was planning to work an entry-level job in mental health and I didn’t know if it was a good idea because it’s just a behavioral health tech job, she immediately applied what she calls “the magic and.”

“You’re working an entry-level job in mental health, and it’s an important job not a lot of people can do,” she said.

Two-and-a-half years later, I’m still at it, coaching clients at the transitional living home on life skills. Our clients come from homelessness, state hospitals and incarceration. I coach them on how to clean toilets and their rooms. I smell urine, and dirty, sweaty socks, and unbathed musk. I clean up their vomit and feces when they’ve not been well.

I coach them on cooking skills. I wait patiently for Vinnie to come back to help finish making the lasagna while he takes a smoke break, which he needs from the stress of the prep.

Billy heaps leftover mashed potatoes and gravy six inches high over two plates and calls it lunch. I focus on nutritional skills, specifically portion control. He dives in anyway.

I guide clients not to smoke cigarette butts they find on the ground and not to drink a monstrous amount of Monster drinks. I model reflective listening and eye contact, social skills for clients living with schizophrenia.

We take clients to the YMCA and practice wellness skills. If John does a lap around the track, it’s a victory because normally he just wants to hit the vending machine or smoke in the wooded area adjacent to the parking lot.

It’s time for noon medications. I coach on medication compliance, but Mary refuses her meds.

I call 911 more times than I can count. God help us, someone got into the Lysol, the acetaminophen, glass.

Of course, there are glimmers of goodness, but they are fewer and farther between. Steve and I jamming out to “Electric Avenue” by Eddie Grant while cleaning bathroom three. Christina high-fiving me after she breaks two miles on the stationary bike at the YMCA. Shayne actually smiling as he pets a Tabby cat at the animal shelter. Making vision boards while listening to the Beatles because that’s the one thing Jason likes is the Beatles.

In fact, some days it’s like I’ve walked into a portal of hell. There is a heaviness in the air. Communal despair. You should see the place on a full moon.

The toilet in bathroom one is clogged again. A client is upset, thinking it was done on purpose. It does look suspect. There’s a pile of feces with toilet paper on top, then more poop, then more paper, like a shit sandwich. I should be the one upset; I get to plunge it. And I plunge further into despair.

Sue, who likes to shop and once gifted me with a denim Hello Kitty clutch bag, spends her check in two days, but she’s back at least, angry, penniless, and hunting for cigarettes. She’s in no shape to be coached on budgeting skills.

Shayne’s relapsing. Meth. His meanness is our first clue.

Burn-out feels like I’ve done all I can do for these clients. I could teach myself the same mindfulness skills I teach them. Breathe, Colleen, breathe. In. Hold. Exhale.

I take time off work, but it doesn’t work. Lather, rinse, repeat. What’s the use? There’s no point. Stick a fork in me, I’m done. But I don’t quit. Because the dishwasher is broken again, and the clients are broken, and I’m broken, and if I quit, I’ve let them down somehow, let myself down too. Plus, I’ll be broke.

I work an entry-level job in mental health, and it’s one that matters.

end of story

© 2024, Colleen Wells Go to top