Next up was Paul, a devastated Romeo whose girlfriend had moved to Sweden. When I entered Paul’s room, he told me he was suicidal again. I asked if he was still heartbroken, and he said he was.

“It’s incredibly hard when someone you care about moves away,” I said.

“She didn’t move away this time.”

“This time?”

“There’s someone new. Well, there was. She dumped me, though.”

Paul had apparently rebounded hard after his discharge from 4 South, and I was beginning to scan through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s list of personality disorders in my mind. He didn’t quite fit with borderline personality or narcissistic personality, but one could make an argument for dependent personality in someone who repeatedly falls so hard and fast that they become suicidal when it doesn’t work out.

I asked him about his suicide plans, and he listed off seven or eight potential methods of ending his own life. With that, I knew that Paul had just qualified for another inpatient stay or at the very least that I could not discharge him. Rebecca had taught me early on that ER psychiatry is a different kind of animal from all the other environments we rotate through.

“The key is that every encounter ultimately boils down to will you admit the patient or will you discharge them,” Rebecca said. “You can’t do therapy in the ER. You can’t give medicine that will make much of a difference. All you can do is decide where the next treatment is going to happen.”

“What about a therapeutic encounter? Empathic listening? Can’t you make a difference that way?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah. Of course that. If you have time,” she replied without any hint of irony or sarcasm.

Next, I saw Deborah, a 54-year-old woman with a history of 14 admissions due to bipolar disorder. She had been looking really well by the time she was last discharged after an acute manic episode on 4 South.

Her room was dark, with the curtains drawn in front of the glass.

“Deborah? It’s Dr. Stern. May I come in?”

I heard a muffled response and poked my head in. Her face was buried in the pillow. I sat down next to the bed and waited for her to engage, but she didn’t.

“Deborah, can we talk?”

Slowly, she turned her face to look at me.

“I can’t live like this. I’m taking the medicine, and it’s just making me more depressed every day. Why is this happening?”

She looked to me for guidance, but all I had was empathy.

“I’m sorry this is happening to you. It’s the disease.”

“What am I going to do?” she asked desperately.

“We’re going to take care of you,” I replied.

There were mounds of paperwork beginning to pile up for each of the three patients I had seen, but I was determined to see the last of the four I had been assigned before returning to the bunker to work on my notes.

The fourth patient was middle-aged Ginger. The first time I’d seen her she was transfixed by a wall mirror, deep in her psychotic thought processes, and she seemed to take comfort in a pocket mirror I gave her.

When I entered the room, though, it occurred to me that all of her possessions including the mirror had been stowed away by security. She was pacing and self-dialoguing in a way that I couldn’t follow. I couldn’t get her to look at me or even say hello.

I stepped out of the room and asked around until I was able to find another small pocket mirror. I held it out in my hand, which caused Ginger to stop pacing and look up at me for the first time. She reached out and gently took the mirror from me.

She looked at herself in it, and I saw her face tighten and her lips curl down. She threw it down onto the tiled floor, and it cracked. Then she looked up at me, her face still in a grimace, and began to pace again.

“I’m sorry you’re having a difficult time,” I said as I scooped up the broken mirror.

I stepped out of the room and told the nurse on duty I’d be ordering antipsychotics for her momentarily.

When I got back to the bunker, Rebecca seemed even more frazzled than she had at the beginning of the shift.

“Nobody’s doing very well, I’m afraid,” I said by way of report.

“Write the notes and move on,” she replied. “Four new consults have already come in.”

Author’s note: This book is based on my experiences during psychiatry residency training. When possible, I have obtained permission from — and I have also changed names and identifying characteristics of — many of the people represented to protect their privacy. I’ve also created composite characters. Patient descriptions and patient encounters in this book have been deliberately altered to make them unidentifiable.

Copyright © 2021 by Adam Stern, MD. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. Available now from HMH Books & Media.