In my 30 plus years working at a major psychiatric hospital just outside of Boston, I have worked with countless patients and staff on both locked and unlocked settings. One of the most creative of these people is Sheree Pollock, a veteran psychiatric nurse. Pollock is a dramatic personality, and uses her knowledge of theater, literature, gardening and other creative passions to engage the patients on a more human level, rather than the purely clinical. The minute she walks through the door her presence is known, and she is not too shy to quote Bette Davis, or Joan Crawford–or belt out a few lyrics from a Judy Garland song to make her point. She is a natural storyteller and thespian–and makes what can often be a purely clinical experience into a richer milieu. I had the pleasure of interviewing Pollock on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet Writer to Writer.
Doug Holder: You told me your ultimate goal is to engage clients in an authentic way. What exactly do you mean by “authentic”?
Sheree Pollock: When a person comes into a psychiatric hospital they are usually very demoralized. And they feel very much less than a person. They have the stereotypical image of what people must think of them. My goal is to connect with them as a person. A person to person approach. We both have dignity and respect and we are going forward. We all have pain in our lives that we have to work through and heal. And I try to get that message across to the clients.
DH: I noticed that you bring your creative flair even to the physical environment. Explain your philosophy and how you go about it?
SP: I am very sensitive to design and decoration. What I like to do is talk to the clients and get their input. I might ask: “Don’t you think this chair looks odd here?” and “ Where else does it belong?” And when clients get involved and improve their environment they feel great. I walk through the unit and try to change things (with of course, the consent of my supervisor) that are not aesthetically pleasing to me. For instance, if there is a plant on the unit that is too large for its dish—if flowers have gone bad—I make a point of addressing that. I like to put out healthy food for people so they can snack and be with each other. I have suggested a lot of things for the physical environment. I suggest color themes, photographs to replace less aesthetically pleasing works. I want to make the environment more upscale and friendly. I want to make it some place you want to be and have family and friends come to visit. A client mentioned this the other day to me. She said that the food and atmosphere that we present here to the clients and guests makes her proud of where she is staying.
DH: You like movies. And you a firm believer in movie groups for clients. You have an ongoing conversation with them about the characters—their dilemmas, etc.. Often clients seem to be experiencing many of the same things they see in the films.
SP: Some of the reasons movie groups are successful is that people can look at a character in the film and they may be able to identify with that character. And maybe that character has something in common with them. And so in talking about the character they may be talking about themselves. And they can do this without disclosing too much about themselves. A good film will show you different aspects of a person –it will engage anyone about their own life.
DH: Do you have any specific movies that have stuck out for you, that you have viewed lately?
SP: We just saw this wonderful movie The Ballad of Jack and Rose that dealt with a loving yet profoundly disturbing relationship between a father and daughter. It dealt with death, the environment, gardening, etc… And it just so happens that someone who was watching the movie was into the environment, etc. .. and this gave her an opening to talk about it.
This is It is a movie about Michael Jackson that made the clients speechless. It made people feel and feel deeply. It made people believe they had been together on a journey as a group. It made them feel they had witnessed this spectacular talent and also the loss of that talent. It was heavy. People couldn’t stop talking about it through the whole week.
DH: Why do you think Michael Jackson was such an iconic figure for the clients?
SP: I think Michael Jackson overcame a lot of pain in his life, and wanted to give back so much. Like Judy Garland, Jackson went through a lot of trials and travails, but still gave back to his fans and others. Both were really able to touch individual people. The way he died and his loss touched home with clients. When people are in a state of depression they think about death.
DH: You are a natural storyteller. You have the natural cadence and the gift for dramatization to keep the clients engaged. How does this play out in the psychiatric setting? Were you always into storytelling?
SP: As a five year old girl I was touched by Judy Garland. I like how she hung in there when times got tough and just dived right through things. The drama and the films I grew up with certainly had an impact on me. I was a storyteller and an informal performer when I was a young girl. And that is a goal with the clients–to engage them with stories–get them out of their isolation.
DH: This, of course, is part of the oral tradition dating back to ancient times– telling stories around the fire. And there is something comforting about the human voice. Isn’t the baby at the young mother’s breast, listening to a lullaby– a very iconic image?
SP: Yes. It come to me naturally. I also like to tell funny stories. I recently was stopped by the police-and I had a comical incident with a police officer who could not decide to give me a ticket or not. I told the clients the story. They loved it. And of course the loved the fact that I didn’t get the ticket!
DH: The mere fact that you are sharing something personal–it is not all clinical–helps you bond with the client. It can be healing, right?
SP: Yes it’s human and it is funny. I don’t hide behind a sterile facade. I talk about myself when it is appropriate. When a client is talking about his woe, pain and humiliation and the clinician or staff gives nothing back–this can make them feel bad.
DH: You have a good sense of fashion. We can hardly call your style scrub chic.
SP: I think about how I dress. I want to project a certain softness yet confidence. Again it is the idea of not being purely clinical. It is the idea of being more human, more hopeful. It happens that clients respond by saying “I have a dress like that.” or ” I want it,” They are engaged. I dress fashionably–yet professional–in a way that the client will feel comfortable to approach me if there is a problem.
DH : You tell me you were influenced by Dr. Maxwell Jones–he was an advocate of the therapeutic community.
SP: In the 1950s Jones worked in England with psychopaths. He had the notion that clients and staff are all individuals and are all equal. He viewed the clinical milieu as a therapeutic environment. People’s issues played out in this context. He thought clinicians could pick up on the patients’ challenges within the social milieu. And hopefully they could get people to see themselves in an unguarded way and grow from that.
DH: Do you think there needs to be more of an emphasis on the clients’ spiritual needs on the unit?
SP: Clients come and go so fast on the unit–so there is little times to address their spiritual and creative needs. When they stay longer we help them with their creative sides. There are writers, photographers, who work on staff and have helped clients with their creative capabilities.
DH: You have a rather eclectic background. You have worked in a number of different fields.
SP: I have been in the jewelry business and a jewelry designer. I studied Gemology. I am also a licensed hairdresser, and I ran a garden design business. I helped people realize their vision for their outside environment.
DH: And in fact you use your gardening expertise at work.
SP: Way back–when the program that I work in was in its infancy–I designed a garden for it. We had Morning Glories growing of trellises–the works. It was dramatic. It was like magic for the clients. The garden is an idealized environment–so it lifts people’s spirits. I remember a patient who was physically imposing, but couldn’t express himself. One day I asked him if he would take a tree and plant it outside. I knew the soil was hard and it would be difficult. He was up for it–he did a great job, and felt on top of the world for doing it.