Essay: “A Split Personality” by Anne Webster

Anne Webster, RN


When I was fourteen, my Uncle John—then in his twenties—chased his pert, blonde wife through their neighborhood with an axe. Grandmother explained that he had something called schizophrenia, or a split personality. I imagined the playful, sweet John I knew cut down the center, as with that axe, the nice part off him peeled away from the violent half.

A few years later when I graduated from high school, I thought of John, and wondered if, like him, my two halves would always be at war. In my case, the smart, creative person and the numbingly practical fought to control my future. Despite a desperate yearning for college, where I wanted to follow in the footsteps of one of my two heroes—the impressionist Mary Cassatt or the scientist Marie Curie—my divorced mother, a government stenographer, declared she could barely feed and clothe me, much less pay for college. She suggested instead that I use my typing skills to take a government job as a stenographer in the Forestry Department where she worked.

When I received a scholarship to nursing school, I accepted it with Mother’s full approval. Since the scholarship paid $175 toward the total $300 tuition for three years, a sum that included room, board, and uniforms, it would be an education that she could afford. And, I reasoned, anything would be better than sitting in an office typing meaningless documents.

During the first quarter of nursing school, I could almost pretend that I was a regular student. Mornings, I road the bus downtown with my classmates where we attended classes at a local college for thirty quarter hours of science credits; afternoons were devoted nursing classes at the hospital. But after three months, in addition to our course load, we found ourselves taking care of patients a couple of hours a day.

I was soon to learn that nursing school in the late fifties was little more than indentured servitude. In return for our upkeep, we students provided a labor pool that staffed the hospital night and day. The two hours an afternoon soon became five hours each morning, giving baths and making beds, in addition to classes on pharmacology and “Nursing Arts.” At the beginning of the second year, our clinical hours expanded to six days a week of eight-hour shifts, with classes thrown in extra. If I was on night duty, for example, I would sleep three hours after breakfast, go to classes all afternoon, and try to catch a nap before going on duty at eleven p.m.

The brutal schedule that I worked left me little time to think about the college I was missing. Still, the urge to develop that other part of me, the would-be artist whose pastel drawing of a desert scene had won an art contest in the fourth grade, nagged at me. I sketched whatever I saw in my dorm room—furniture, ashtrays, even my feet. But the relentlessness of class, study, and work drowned out everything else.

In my last year of school, our class went for a three-month psychiatric affiliation at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia. During those months, we traded our terrible hours for the day shift and a five-day work week, taking care of the mentally ill. The huge campus housed twenty-five thousand patients, many of whom had been “warehoused” for life.

There I learned the true meaning of schizophrenia as I tended immobile catatonics, jabbering hebephrenics, and people who seemed perfectly sane until you mentioned something that triggered their delusions. “Isn’t that nice music on the radio?” I once asked an elderly woman. “It’s the aliens!” She shrieked and covered her ears. ‘They’re sending rays through the radio to control our brains.”

Back at my home hospital, I spent the remaining nine months of nursing school on night duty. As a senior, I took charge of an entire floor with fifty-two patients, at a time when there were no ICUs; critical patients were mixed in with the appendectomies and bleeding ulcers. With little preparation, I was introduced to people with DTs, fibrillation, and crushing chest injuries, patients who somehow survived my care.

But of all the illnesses I encountered, schizophrenia frightened me most—the malady of being taken over by irrational thought.

Despite having learned first hand at Milledgeville the true meaning of the disease, Uncle John still came to mind when, as a young RN, my opposing parts clashed. The girl who had dreamed of college, of becoming an artist or a doctor, railed against her existence as the busy, low-rung practitioner she’d become. To appease her, one night each week I abandoned my husband and small son for the Atlanta School of Art, where I took classes in drawing and composition, still-life and landscape painting. Finally I realized that, though I could competently render a bowl of fruit, I would never become the next Mary Cassatt; the visual imaging part of my brain refused to come up with anything new.

Still smarting from feeling shortchanged by my one-sided technical education, I went to Georgia State University for those courses in the arts and humanities I’d been denied as a student, courses that I’d hoped would turn me into—if not an intellectual—someone who understood her world.

But something important was still missing from my life. What could I do with that urge, the one that made me want to record my world? After I stopped drawing and painting, I began writing down my impressions of patients on three by five index cards with no idea of what I would do with them. When my sister Rosemary had a few poems published, she started hosting a group of writers at her house and invited me to join. Within months, I knew I’d found my creative home. Instead of struggling to force something into being as I had with painting, writing came naturally, and soon some of my poems appeared in local literary journals.

As satisfying as that was, this new outlet only deepened the schism I felt at work. Did that doctor who yelled at me when his patient went bad realize—or care—that he was berating a published poet? When the other nurses chatted about their kids, new curtains, or boyfriends, I kept mum about the poems I wrote. I could imagine their stares, as if I’d grown another head. The few times I’d mentioned my writing to friends, say at a dinner party, a stunned silence had followed.

I worked that way for twenty years—an earthy, competent nurse and a closet writer housed in the same body. But along the way I had discovered that writing gave me a way to cope with the trauma of dealing with sick and dying patients. Contrary to what non-nurses think—that the bodily realities of disease, injuries, and excretion are difficult to face—it’s the emotional pain of watching patients and their families suffer that takes a toll on their caregivers. Eventually I began a novel, spurred on by a patient I’d seen in the ER, one whom I felt sure had been murdered but had been declared a suicide. When my closest friend dropped dead at 39 while dancing on the eve of a divorce from an abusive husband, I could only retreat to my desk and write page after page of verse, a chaotic jumble that later became a published poem.

I eventually quit nursing for a few years to devote myself to writing. I finished the novel about the man who died in the ER, as well as another prompted by a battered woman, another ER patient. I wrote more poems, consulted on writing projects, and taught business writing. Finally I felt comfortable in my identity as a writer.

But I missed that other part of me—the nurse. Like an amputated limb, it begged to be itched. When my daughter-in-law was severely injured—her uncle’s Great Dane bit off her chin—I spent weeks at her bedside while she endured repeated surgeries to restore her face, time that made me realize my nursing skills were as important to me as writing, maybe even more. Though my poems had been widely published in literary journals, I felt sure the number of people who had read my work were fewer by far than those patients whom I’d nursed back to health or through terminal illness to their deaths, patients whose lives I could enrich at a time when they were at their neediest.

After a three-month refresher course, I went back into nursing, taking a demotion from my last job as a critical care administrator to one as a staff nurse on a cardiac unit. I had never been happier. On the three or four days a week I worked, I wholeheartedly devoted myself to the patients. On my days off, I wrote poems, attended writing groups, and taught a correspondence course in business writing. When something terrible happened to a patient—like an infected post-op cardiac bypass patient who hemorrhaged to death, his incision spewing blood all over the room—I knew how to put the trauma outside myself. That patient became both a poem and a part of a memoir, as well as a permanent resident of my heart.

I’ve since learned that the schism I’d felt exists in many people. A friend and successful businesswoman told me that she has to tamp down her creative side to succeed, reminding me that we met many years ago in a poetry workshop. Another friend shares her ambitions as dancer and actor with a practical personal trainer. And, coming full circle, my roommate from nursing school, following her interest in history, writes brochures for historic sites and has published a biography of Stephen Foster.

It’s now been half a century since I was that eager teenager first donning a uniform. Looking back at my career, I have no regrets about the college degrees that I didn’t earn. The second-rate education I had once hated led me into work that has provided me with the satisfaction of knowing I’ve helped fellow humans in a meaningful way. The same work continues to provide me with fuel for my other life—that of a writer. At last I have become a whole person, the two disparate halves no longer at war.

from Rattle #28, Winter 2007


Anne Webster has combined a career in nursing with writing and leading workshops. Her poetry has appeared in such literary magazines as The New York Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, and Mediphors, along with several anthologies, including Intensive Care and The Poetry of Nursing. Her collection of poems, A History of Nursing, will be published early in 2008 by Kennesaw State University.

Rattle Logo