Got A Knife
I can feel my pulse quicken in fear just thinking about him again. But I’m getting ahead of my story. A true story.
It was the week of Thanksgiving, and the mood of the staff I supervised was a bit more lively. It was the PM shift—the 3:00-11:30 pm in what is called the Psych ER of a behavioral health hospital. The staff in our adjacent registration department were in good spirits, too. My son, Bret, worked there after classes at Lake Forest College. He and his co-worker Beth (not her real name) were anticipating the four-day weekend.
There was a steady flow that night of people seeking assessments for substance abuse, depression, anxiety, psychosis, eating disorders—all areas of mental health and substance use. The outcome of the assessment determined what treatment would be recommended.
Later in the evening, an older couple brought their adult son in for an assessment. I’ll call him Joe. He was friendly and responsive, but Joe also was depressed and had some delusional thoughts. These thoughts interfered in his ability to care for himself. So Joe and his parent’s agreed when the psychiatrist recommended an inpatient stay for a few days to stabilize his mood. Joe’s parent’s decided not to wait for the sign-in process and they said their goodbyes until visiting hours the next day.
Then, it happened.
I was in the hub of our department where all the clinicians and nurses complete their notes, speak with doctors, and so on. From the corner of my eye, I saw Beth running to me from the registration department, shouting something. Then I heard what she kept screaming over and over. I felt like I was under water and someone was yelling something very serious, but it was all a muffled echo. My brain tried to take it all in.
“He’s got a knife.” “He’s got a knife.” “He’s got a knife,” Beth yelled pointing to registration. I didn’t have to ask where Bret was. I started running.
I was in charge and I tried to focus, but in one second my brain took in the entire traumatic scene and then warped my mind a mile backward at what felt like the speed of light. What is that called when the brain does that? Disassociation? Paralyzing Trauma?
No, no, NO, I thought to myself. Then I was back.
“Hey,” I yelled.
It was Joe. I startled him. He looked at me still pressing the knife on Bret’s neck. Joe explained he knew we were the FBI and our plan was to kill him. He wanted out.
“You want out?” I asked. Without waiting for an answer I said “I’ll let you out.” Joe looked at me and then at my son.
“Joe, you let him go and come over to me,” I pleaded, “and I’ll get you out of here. I promise.” I aged 20 years waiting for a reply. Joe slowly took the knife off Bret’s neck and walked over to me brandishing his knife back and forth in front of him, and in front of me. We were face-to-face.
“Okay Joe, let’s go. Just follow me.”
Joe remained behind me with his knife at my back. I unlocked the door to leave registration. I could see my staff going towards Bret as we left. I took Joe down the main hallway—the one he used to come in. This way he would know I was keeping my promise and taking him back to the main doors. When a mob of staff appeared to join the fight I waved them back. Yes, Joe should have gone upstairs to an inpatient unit, but how many would be hurt getting that knife.
I walked Joe through the main doors and we entered the lobby. I told the receptionist to let him go and Joe walked out our main entrance and into the night.
Returning to our department, my staff had already called 911 and the police were outside waiting. Bret was fine. Everyone was okay. We learned the police had Joe in custody.
My son, in his late 20s at the time, laughed off the whole experience. No big deal for him. I, on the other hand, needed therapy for months after this event. Symptoms of Traumatic Stress plagued me. Even now, today, I close my eyes and see the image of my son being pinned against the wall with a knife at his throat. It’s been almost ten years but feels like last night. Thank God it’s all in my head!
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