Why I’m at the Herald, and not a disco dancer

I got hooked on journalism while at a state mental hospital in the early 1980s.

From the outside, it was gothic and foreboding. Inside were faded yellow tile walls and locked wards where people screamed at night.

During the day, the halls bustled with doctors in white coats and patients in mismatched clothes.

I was in the middle, a newly minted social worker with a pen and a set of keys.

My tasks included writing case histories and intakes in clinical jargon: A divorced female, 56 y.o., presents with manic ideations. A 23 y.o. single male hears voices from the radiator telling him to kill the mayor.

The Indiana hospital was for the chronically mentally ill. Many were long-term or repeats. Admitted. Readmitted. Unable to adjust to life outside the security of the tiled wall institution. It was the only home they had.

I didn’t major in social work to save the world. As a single mom in college in Terre Haute, I slung drinks at Bo’s Disco which had a wet T-shirt contest on Thursdays. After five years I needed to graduate and social work didn’t require math.

I fit right in at Evansville State Hospital in my hometown, which I had driven by many times growing up. I loved hanging out with the patients, talking about their lives, not their treatment plans. It was then I realized: Everybody’s got a story.

The manic woman, the man hearing voices, they were more than cases in charts. They were people, not clinical paragraphs.

I wanted to write stories, not chart notes.

After a few years I quit and took a semester of journalism. I started working for an Evansville daily newspaper.

The pay was less than Bo’s Disco on a slow night. There were no government perks.

At the paper, every chance I got I wrote about patients. Mildred, who’d been there for decades and didn’t have any family or visitors. She talked me into bringing her Pall Malls and taking her to my home at Christmas. She had a low IQ but was smarter than most people I know.

Then there was Floyd, whose mother and aunt were also patients. He loved Batman. Our newsroom adopted him at holidays.

A newspaper is vital to telling the stories of those who otherwise would be nothing more than chart notes or told only in obituaries.

After leaving Indiana I wrote for a Colorado paper before joining The Daily Herald in 2012.

If I’d stayed working for the state I could have retired 14 years ago.

The gothic hospital building has long since been torn down, replaced by a sleek inpatient treatment center. But it’s where my story started. In those tiled hallways a good-looking guy winked at me. He’d get written up by HR for that these days. We got married and raised four children.

Andrea writes the popular “What’s Up With That” column for The Herald and reports on topics from pop culture to pot culture. Support her and the newsroom with a subscription or donation.