When I was an inpatient, it was my job to write the board up in the morning. Rather than just writing the list of staff that were on that day, writing my board was an elaborate task, easily taking over half an hour. The right quotes had to be found, the right nicknames for staff had to be conjured up, and the right pictures had to be drawn. The other patients would gather round as I worked and the nurses would howl with laughter when my masterpiece was revealed. Manic me would take to writing my own name beside the list of nurses (in anticipation of being a student nurse) and they would tut and laugh and I would chirp back “sure I’m practically already a nurse!”
One day, near discharge, I said I’d have to come back to the ward every morning when I got home to make sure the board was done properly. The two nurses I was talking with snapped “no you will not; the only time you’ll be back on this ward is in uniform!!”
Discharge day arrived, and with the nurses’ words ringing in my ears and university quickly approaching, I promised myself the same thing.
It’s been a long haul, but last week I did just that- I had my first day of placement as a student nurse and stepped back onto a psychiatric ward wearing a uniform, and it was the best damn feeling.
Except, the whole thing was actually a bit disillusioning. Really and truly, my first day of placement was a bit underwhelming. The ward was understaffed, which meant the nurses were rushed off their feet and there was next to no staff-patient interaction, let alone time for staff to deal with a group of first year students who were qualified to do absolutely nothing. We got in the way, and spent most of the day hovering in the corridors or twiddling our thumbs in the nurses station, unsure if we were allowed to talk to patients or answer the phones or what it was that was expected of us.
More than that though, it felt strange. Day #1 I read patients files and feel like I have no right to do so- it was only several months before that nurses were writing in and reading my files. I pass on a patient incident to a member of staff and feel uncomfortalbe doing so- I was used to nurses in hushed whisphers passing on things about me. Day #2 I am presented with the medication charts and discover that patient #1 and I are on the same medications, down to the brand. Ironic, really. I follow the nurse round like a puppy, remembering that the last time I followed a nurse round a ward, I was manic and jabbering incessantly. The nurse comments on the cooker burn I have on my right wrist, and I wait for her to comment on the self inflicted scars on my left wrist. And so I walk the ward in my student nurse uniform, NHS lanyard swinging as I go, and I feel like an imposter.
There was a difference, I discovered, between thinking about something happening and imagining how it might be or feel, and that thing actually happening. I imagined what it might be like to be a student nurse from my hospital bed, yet I never really thought about what it would actually be like. Sure, I knew it would be hard, that there was the potential for it to be triggering and that there might be times when I felt I’d jumped into it too soon, but I didn’t think I might feel like I didn’t belong there. Because at times I didn’t.
I felt I was playing dress up. I tugged at the sleeves of my uniform, fought with my head over whether the ward sister’s prolonged glance at my scars was real or imagined, worried that the offer to talk about ‘anything in private’ was aimed at me specifically, flinched any time they spoke of manic depression, or mania, or how such and such needs to come down- the exact words that were used about me a handful of months ago. Each day, all day, I just waited to be called out. For the nurses to go ‘haha very funny, now take the uniform off’. It’s all a little hard to wrap my head around, because the last time I was on a psych ward, I was a patient, and I don’t feel anywhere near ready or qualified enough to be a student nurse: six and a half months and five weeks of lectures is all that separates patient me from nurse me. And that’s a little strange and more than a little scary.
I’ve been told that there will come a time when my stories of wards as a patient will soon become replaced with stories of the wards as a student nurse. So far, I’ve completed two days of placement, and I can see that beginning to happen, even already. I am hoping that as I continue, I will be less compelled to chip in with ‘yeah, this one time, when I was in hospital…’ I am hoping that the longer I spend on the wards as a student nurse, the less I will fear being caught out, accused of dressing up, playing games. I spent so much of my last two inpatient admissions trying to play nurse, that it still feels a little surreal wearing a uniform for real.