Sometimes we have the tools we need to do our job. Sometimes we try to use those tools only to find that they aren’t working as we expected them to. Where do we go from there?
For those who aren’t familiar with my background, I was formerly a psychiatric nurse working in a mental hospital. The first thing you learn about mental illness is that it’s caused by trauma and abuse. Not all mental illness, of course, but where there is trauma and abuse, there is a good chance that something is going to be broken. This principle is not unique to humans. Animals also suffer from abuse or traumatic events and become unstable or unpredictable.
Several months ago, we took in a sweet little Indian Ringneck. A short time after that, we took in his former cage neighbor, a little female Ringneck named Crystal. She’s a beautiful girl but since I picked her up she’s been completely unapproachable.
We’ve taken in 75 birds. I am used the initial shock and sometimes separation anxiety they experience when they are either dropped off or we pick them up. Most go through a period of adjustment. That’s one of the reasons we keep the quarantine area upstairs, away from the day-to-day chaos of the population of birds we have living here.
Crystal never adjusted. She remained flighty and panicked. I tried every tool in my arsenal. I normally have few problems making friends with any creature. She just wasn’t wanting to have anything to do with me. This, of course, would be fine except for the fact that I have to feed her, clean her cage, and change her water dish. Coming near the cage provoked a violent outburst of screaming, flapping to the point of self-injury and sometimes a mad rush out the door of the cage.
During one such incident, she broke a blood feather and had to be restrained. Great, I am thinking, this is going to be a huge set-back to building trust.
There are quite a few wild-caught birds here. Two of my own birds are ex-breeders who were never socialized with humans out of the mistaken belief that birds that are “pets” can be parents. They are slowly learning to trust me and we have a pretty decent relationship growing between us.
Not so with Crystal! I was at wits’ end. Then I used my “phone a friend” option – I messaged Kathy LaFollett and asked for advice. What she said to me COMPLETELY changed the dynamics of the relationship between myself and Crystal!
One thing you learn about dealing with human patients who have mental illness is that when they are not in control of the mind, trying to reach them with therapeutic communication is futile. You can’t reach them because they can’t process what you are saying. No matter how true or how compassionate or how beneficial what you are saying is – they simply CANNOT benefit from it because it’s not getting past the storm that is raging in their own mind.
This was Crystal. She didn’t want to hear my best soothing nurse voice telling her it’s going to be okay. She didn’t care that I had to put my hands in her cage in order to clean and replace food and water because it was for her own good. She just knew blind panic, and that’s all she could process at that moment in time.
Kathy was a calm voice of sanity in the midst of this terrible storm. “First things first with IRNs always. Back off.” I was trying too hard to win Crystal over. It was just feeding her panic. Next she said “Okay I get it. You've got a girl that is traumatized and girls are hard anyway generally. Do this for her now. Keep her covered 90%. She just has to have that dark space in the back.” So I immediately found a sheet, and wrapped it around the cage, leaving only the door and the spot on the side where the two of them lovingly perch side by side at night. Kathy’s advice? “That’s great. Just make sure there's no reason for your hand to go in there at all.” So I make sure that I don’t reach deep into the cage. She has one toy in there, that it took weeks to get her to accept and she’s never even touched it so I won’t change any toys. Her bowls are either next to the door (dry food and water) or on the door (breakfast). Now I made my intrusions as minimal and as low-key as I possibly could. Kathy continued to walk me through learning the unique personality of the mysterious creature that is a female Indian Ringneck parakeet.
In the months that Crystal has been here, nothing I’ve tried has made any difference. She consistently panicked when I was ten feet away if I was walking towards the cage. Or if she THOUGHT I was walking towards the cage. She would not eat if I was anywhere in the room. She definitely was not going to accept any food rewards.
The sheet was a game-changer. Suddenly, I was able to walk right up to the cage with little more than a vocal protest. No more wild flapping. No more throwing herself all over the cage. And each day, it’s gotten a little better, culminating in nothing less than a miracle, today.
When dealing with a patient with mental illness, you can often see that moment when they gain control of their own mind. It’s a beautiful and often hard-won victory. In schizophrenic patients, sometimes the change is extremely profound. That’s what I was seeing today with Crystal.
She actually met my gaze. I didn’t see the uncontrolled panic in her eyes. I saw uncertainty, for sure, but not that wild fear that had been her consistent reaction to my presence since we met. She did make her alarm call as I reached for the latch, but it was almost half-hearted as she jumped down and ran to the other (covered) side of her cage. I took a deep breath and in my best calming, nurse voice said “Crystal, I need you to get up on your perch, please.” AND SHE DID. I am sure she must have wondered why my mouth was suddenly hanging open wide, but she remained calmly on the perch as I took out her bowls and put clean ones in. I was so surprised by her immediate compliance. I never expected it. And she remained calm. Not a single peep was uttered, nor a single flap. She just watched me. For the first time in our relationship, she was watching to see what I would do next. Heeding Kathy’s advice, I made my visit short and as non-intrusive as possible.
What happened here? Communication: the very first step to building a relationship. It took an insight that I didn’t have to teach me that I was failing with Crystal. I was doing everything wrong. I was trying so hard to impress her with the luscious food and with love and acceptance that I was actually scaring her away. Kathy saved me from these mistakes and now my relationship with Crystal can move (slowly and delicately) forward.
Thank you, Kathy, for saving us!