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Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review: Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych E.R. by Julie Holland

I'm not sure why but for some reason I expected more stories about the crazy people in the Psych E.R. than about author Julie Holland's life, which was just bad on my part. After all, this is a memoir, and rarely is a memoir just about work and not also about home, and I'm glad this one incorporated both sides. While I read it to find out what a Psych E.R. is like, I found out who Julie Holland is. And she's a bundle of contradictions, as are we all.

Dr. Holland grew up with a tough and demanding father, and unlike her two sisters, she managed to be the tough little kid he always wanted by completely subverting her feelings, denying her femininity to the point of being almost butch, and being so tough she bordered on combative. And while these defense mechanisms really helped, and were a big part of how she managed to stay in the Psych E.R. for 9 years (a record at Bellevue), they also got in the way a lot. When a crazy, angry, hyped-up druggie is screaming at you, it's not always a good idea to challenge him right back. And I was thrilled when Dr. Holland began seeing a therapist herself. Not only does it further break down barriers to therapy (even therapists need it sometimes!) but it showed an understanding of her issues and a willingness to change that made her very appealing.

Now there are plenty of crazy patients. Bellevue gets all the potentially crazy and/or drugged-up arrestees in New York City, not to mention they are the most high-profile psychiatric hospital in the country so they get a lot of walk-ins, some from several states away! Dr. Holland has to deal with a serial killer, a baby killer, and one I remember, the guy who pushed the girl in front of a subway on the NR platform at 23rd Street in 1998. I moved to NYC only a year later and I took the N and 23rd Street was my stop for work. Shiver.

Along with the rare and memorable cases, there are thousands of depressive, schizophrenics, bipolars, and people with addictions (often people have 2-3 of the above!) Trying to stay sane yourself while dealing with hallucinating, violent, disgusting, and dangerous individuals is not for everyone, and Dr. Holland's tough tomboy attitude helped her keep up a wall so that her motions and empathy didn't overwhelm her and burn her out right away. However, her unfamiliarity with her own feelings really gets in the way when her boss and mentor, Lucy's cancer returns. Instead of being a support for Lucy, Dr. Holland finds she hides and avoids, which makes her feel terribly guilty but she does it nonetheless, blaming her new motherhood for being too busy.

At the beginning of the memoir, Dr. Holland is brash and swaggering, almost in denial of her femininity, and yet she gets a boyfriend, they get married, she has two kids, and turns into a mom with a private practice and an apartment on the Upper West Side and a house upstate, a far cry from the punky, rebellious doctor she started out as. It's nice to see her soften and become more vulnerable, and yet sad at the same time to see her inevitable realization that she can't continue forever at Bellevue without her armor, and yet she can't put the armor back on that she's worked so hard to take off.

While the crazy patient stories are riveting, it's really Dr. Holland's growth that is the most fascinating story here. The stories are wild and told so quickly, and there are so many of them, that you almost get whiplash. But at the same time I'm glad they were short because they'd be so much harder to process if they had even more detail. When dealing with insanity, it's best to stick to the surface, lest you get pulled under as well. The book is in chronological order but a lot of the chapters are like stand-along essays. I wish there was a little bit more of a through-thread tying them all together, but it held together in a narrative well enough.

I found myself anxious for Dr. Holland's safety at times, glad for her insights at others, and overall very happy to have been able to glimpse into a world I hope to never see even as a visitor, even if it was so thought-provoking that it was hard to go to sleep afterward.

I bought this book at a Borders GOOB sale.

1 comment:

Booksnyc said...

Sounds fascinating. I had a friend that worked at Bellevue and she had some interesting stories to tell!