A loss of conviction

Lizbeth T. Binks

August 30, 1991|By Lizbeth T. Binks

IT'S "Reagan time," see, and all around you your former classmates and friends have bought the package. They're on the fast track, dressing for success, hiring an au pair for the Baby On Board and moving six figures (at least) around on computer screens all day.

You're a psychologist, you're pretty good, and you could've stayed with that glitzy group practice, pulled in a few contracts and treated well-heeled people with "affluenza" for the rest of your days.

But no, you had to Lizbeth T. Binks leave and open an old-fashioned, one-doc general private practice with word-of-mouth referral and a sliding scale so almost no one got turned away for lack of money. The practice was a surprising success; you could have filled a zillion hours.

But remember, you aren't a fast-track person. You are a single mom who wants to spend some time with her kid and, anyway, you don't want to reinvent the (spinning) wheel that you just left.

Furthermore, you're actually dumb enough to believe that you entered a service profession in order to serve, and you know there are even needier patients out there, misunderstood, stigmatized and most of the time unable even to state their needs, much less vote for the most helpful politician. So you choose to limit your private practice, and you go to work for the state psychiatric hospital half-time.

OK, you made your choice. Admit it, you also enjoyed the stimulation of seeing colleagues every day, teaching and supervising interns and getting "continuing education" every day. But as "Reagan time" became "Bush time," it still wasn't an easy job at all, what with economics and politics and the basic job description itself.

You didn't dress for success; you dressed in clothes that could withstand close encounters with bodily fluids of the worst kind. And while somewhere, someone was happy about a 15-point rise in the Dow, you were positively ecstatic about a 15-minute reality-based conversation with one of your patients, now in his eighth year of hospitalization. This time, this year, you had to cure him, because wards were shutting down all around you. Maybe you and your patient would be on the streets together.

So it wasn't the money, it wasn't the benefits, it wasn't the job security and it certainly wasn't glamour or power that got you to work for the state. It was hard, thankless work, service in the fullest sense of the word.

About the only thing that kept you going was your conviction that this work needed to be done, and done well, and your gratitude at being able to learn from such an experience. In short, your spirit kept you alive.

Now, take away the spirit. And take away the literary device. You is me. I am the state employee Governor Schaefer is telling to work more time for less money (no step raise, no cost-of-living increase).

Now tell me I'm a lazy, thankless state employee. After all, I could be laid off. Try to make me worry about myself, and maybe I'll forget to worry about those patients, who will wait a long time for someone to come and replace me if I need to be replaced.

Even if I don't get laid off, I don't feel so hot about my job right now. If I'm careless, maybe somebody pulls back into a shell for another eight years. Or maybe I get assaulted.

The problem with the 40-hour work week is the message it sends: "If you'd just work harder and longer, the state would be all right."

Well, we're already working hard and long, with shrinking resources and greater challenges. We make it work not with mirrors, but with spirit, dedication and a sense of humor. And that's what we're losing now.

Lizbeth T. Binks writes from Baltimore.

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