So, my last blog ended with me driving away from A&E in the back of a car with 2 staff from the Crisis Team. If this was a short story, that is where we would leave things. Nice cliff-hanger. Full of possibilities. But life isn’t like that. You don’t get to skip past the crap, boring bits between the crisis point and the emerging phoenix-like from the ruins of your life. You have to keep living. One breath at a time.
So, what’s it like being in residential psychiatric care? Well, it’s not awful. It’s a million miles from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest. Although, actually, my profile picture for this blog was a selfie I took on my second day at The Lodge and sent to my work colleagues in lieu of setting cover work for my classes. Hopefully it gave them a laugh. On the other hand, it isn’t an oasis of calm where everyone sips camomile tea and talks about philosophy. It’s just…..normal.
Anyway, I woke up on the first day in my anti-ligature room. I admired the lateral thinking behind that one. It doesn’t matter if you take belts, shoe laces, cables in with you, there is nothing to hang yourself from. No dangling light fittings, no closer on the door, the blinds and wardrobe are designed to collapse if you put any weight on them. Your medication gets locked in a safe in your room and it requires a PIN from yourself and one from the staff to access them. There is a blessed lack of Gideon’s Bibles in the bedside cabinet. My room is down the corridor from the staff office. It is reserved for the highest-risk residents.
Waking up is awful. In my moral framework, I had agreed to admission, therefore I had agreed not to die, at least for a while. I accepted that, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t wake up every day for weeks wishing I had made a different choice. However, there is only so long you can lie in bed wishing you were dead. So, I get up. I don’t need to dress, because I still haven’t got the hang of taking my clothes off to go to bed. I walk downstairs to the shared kitchen. Residents are required to cook for and clean up after themselves. I put the kettle on to make a cup of tea. I am moving as if bound by treacle. I can barely move. How does one snap out of such a state? Well, apparently, one method is to have a middle-aged Asian woman (let’s call her Kajal) bound into the kitchen and shout
“WOULD YOU LIKE A JAFFA CAKE?” at approximately a million decibels.
“Err…. No thank you.”
“Errr….it’s eight in the morning, it’s a bit early for Jaffa Cakes.”
“YOU’RE TOO THIN. HAVE SOMETHING ELSE.” [Proceeds to empty entire contents of kitchen cupboards out and offer me every single food item in them]
And that is how I met my first fellow resident of TL. Kajal is a paranoid schizophrenic, whose medication renders her unable to stand still (she hops constantly from one foot to the other) and who talks (sorry, shouts) constantly – I suspect to block out the voices in her head. She is also kind, funny, very interested in other people and apparently on a one woman mission to help me gain a dress size before leaving TL. She’s a like a cross between Betty Crocker and The Spanish Inquisition.
Time moves very slowly in TL. Somehow, eating 3 meals, showering, talking to people (and in my case, of course, running) can take up a whole day, easily. I don’t recall ever being bored. There are activities on offer. I turned down the option of making a sensory glitter shaker with the Occupational Therapy students who were on placement there. They turned down my offer of a 5K run (although one of them later told me I’d inspired her to start going to the gym again, which was really nice). We compromised, and I spent half an hour explained the importance of Harvard Referencing to them.
Who else do you get to meet in the TL? The one that broke my heart was an Iranian refugee, let’s call him Mehdi. He appeared one morning in hospital pyjamas and stayed in them, bare foot, for 2 days. He said that the hospital had to burn his clothes following his suicide attempt. He was alone in the country, unable to work because of his refugee status, and with no friends or family. Watching Kajal meet Mehdi was probably one of the most excruciating but lovely interactions I have ever watched.
“WHAT’S YOUR NAME?”
“WOULD YOU LIKE A JAFFA CAKE?”
“Sorry, I don’t understand”
“A JAFFA CAKE? OR SOME CURRY? WHY ARE YOU HERE? WHERE ARE YOUR CLOTHES? ARE YOUR FAMILY GOING TO BRING YOU SOME CLOTHES? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? DO YOU LIVE NEARBY?”
[Turning to me] “ISN’T IT SAD THAT HE DOESN’T SPEAK ENGLISH? WHERE DO YOU THINK HE’S FROM?”
“He’s from Iran and he does speak English. You just need to try speaking a bit more slowly and quietly and then he will understand what you are saying.”
“OH. OKAY. ARE YOU FROM IRAN? ARE YOU MUSLIM?”
“Yes, I am Muslim.”
“THEN YOU ARE MY BROTHER! I WILL HAVE MY FAMILY BRING FOOD!”
I have no idea whether Mehdi was terrified or bemused, but after that they really hit it off. She spent the rest of her stay telling everyone he was her Muslim brother, feeding him meals her family brought in for her and generally looking after him. It also reduced the frequency of her trying to feed me down to about once every 30 minutes, which was something of a relief.
Some people come to the TL as a staging post when they are leaving more secure residential settings. There were a couple more residents with schizophrenia (incidentally, a group conversation around the kitchen table that involves 5 people, 4 of whom are hearing voices can get really confusing!) One of them came to tell me, in confidence, that he hated being in the TL because while he was away from his house, people would break in and do his laundry. It took me a few minutes to realise that he was probably not as bonkers as that statement would first suggest, but had rather failed to grasp the concept of ‘care workers’. His major concern was that other people’s socks would get mixed in with his laundry and this would lead to him contracting HIV. My qualifications in biology were not enough to allow me to persuade him otherwise. Although he did ask me out on a date. Lucky me.
The other resident who really stuck with me was “Mark”. He was an older guy who had had a breakdown following the death of his partner and was awaiting a place in longer-term supported housing. He was lovely, easy to talk to. He told the staff that sitting in the evenings and drinking hot chocolate with me was the best part of his day. One evening he walked into the kitchen.
“I have to ask you something.”
“Okay, you can ask me anything you like.”
“Are we in Berlin?”
“No, we’re in Sheffield. You are staying at The Lodge.”
“Are you sure? I keep thinking we’re in Germany.”
“I’m absolutely sure Mark.”
We chatted for a while, but he kept coming back to the Berlin thing and was getting increasingly distressed. I went up to the office and told the staff member on duty that maybe they should come and see him. Her response, in heavily-accented English, made my evening…
“But….. I am German! Do you think this will help?”
So, did I feel I fitted in at TL? No, I guess not. The most frequently-asked question was ‘do you work here?’. Not that I thought I was better (or worse) than anyone else there. Just…different. I know I’m not in Berlin. I know that the voices I hear are not real, and are a product of my psyche. I can behave appropriately in social situations. But, what I do have is a deep, pervasive and long-lasting belief that I should die. It runs through my being like a stream. Sometimes it goes deep underground, a mere trickle that I don’t notice. For years at a time, I won’t even think of it. Sometimes it comes to the surface, a raging torrent threatening to drown me. It is strangely difficult for me to view this as an illness. I can look at someone who, say, believes their cat is a reincarnation of Genghis Khan and think, ‘Yep, you’re nuts’ (if any of my readers actually do think this – I apologise. But I still think you’re nuts). But I cannot look at my own suicidality and think the same. My psyche is highly resistant to change on this point. I feel if I could understand why I believe this, then I could change it. Permanently. But I do not understand. Can I change it anyway, without understanding it? Maybe, I don’t know.
I would like to finish this rather light-hearted look at my week at TL by saying how vastly grateful I am for my time there. The staff are wonderful. They are kind, patient, compassionate, skilful and, in a couple of cases at least, ex-service users. They gave me time, safety, rest and hope. I cannot find the words to say how important what they do is. So many lives must be improved and even saved by that building and the people who work in it. It must never, ever, be lost.