A Psychiatric Aide, Way Back Then



Neighborhood: Washington Heights

I was too young to comprehend “dark energy” that pulls apart the human psyche. But at 19, I was a witness.

New York State Psychiatric Institute, high up and hovering over the Hudson in Washington Heights, was, and still is, a special teaching hospital connected to Columbia University. 

In the 1950s, when I worked there, it catered mostly to the elite and challenging patients. It was the beginning years of psychotropic, but, if needed, there was always Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT).

It stood in contrast to New York’s state psychiatric hospitals, Pilgrim and Creedmoor, which consisted of a dour world of brick buildings that could easily be compared to England’s 19th-century Bedlam: no medication and little treatment. A holding facility for “lunatics.”

For whatever reason, which today I cannot fathom, at 18 I searched out and landed a job as a “psychiatric aide.” 

Maybe I was ahead of my time, or was just a “rebel,” but I refused the white uniform and wore civies. The staff humored my determination to bridge the separation between patient and orderly. And if nothing else, the patients enjoyed my taking them out to Riverside Park on walking excursions.

I recollect a few instances when I was over my head and befuddled. Holding down a “vibrating patient” while he received ECT was unsettling, to say the least. Then there was the instance where I assisted in grappling with a “manic patient” when a strange feeling arose in me of wishing to beat him down (maybe this is what a Capo felt in the concentration camp). The most humiliating moment was the request I wash down a soiled Alzheimer patient who didn’t belong there, but was kept on the ward because his physician’s wife was on staff. When he released feces in the tub, I gagged and in panic found another orderly to replace me. I still shudder from that particular memory.

It took a certain toughness along with a caring capacity to serve in that role as a psychiatric aide. But over time I gained insight into the system. The “shrinks” believed they were in charge, with their “curative” cocktails. In fact, it was the nurses that ran the wards, but usually there was only one or two on duty. The secret sauce that baked the cake of patient care was the psychiatric aides. At that time, they were mostly men of color and, maybe because of an in-network, many of them were gay. “Hats off to them.”


Eugene Barron is a psychotherapist, published author (poetry, short story, novel) and in the last several years, documentary film maker. Resides on UWS. and also Florida.

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