It’s been a tough week. A tough month. A tough winter!
But the last few days have been tougher than I ever could have imagined. If someone had suggested to me that I’d be spending more days admitted to psychiatric wing in a hospital, I’d have told them that there wasn’t a bat-in-hells chance I’d set foot back in that place.
Those two days and two nights from December were enough to warn me that it was unhealthy and dangerous for me to ever consider it an option. This presented the teams trying to keep me safe with a genuine challenge.
Additionally, I have been refusing anti-depressant medication because I feel that the previous times I’ve had packets of pills thrown at me for months or years at a time, it was only ever a very temporary fix to a much larger issue that was never being given a chance to be exposed or to heal. Again, how to lift me out of this slump without the one tool that doctors know they can rely on? Another challenge.
With help from friends, I began to soften my stance a little. I was in a bad way.
Okay, let’s drop all pretences and just say it…
I wasn’t going to get any worse. I had hit the point where I was genuinely ready, plans in place, methods all researched and understood, risk assessed for desired results versus unintended damage or casualties, to end it all.
It was only a fear of not getting something just right and surviving with potentially life altering injuries that was stopping me from making the attempt. I knew that friends would quickly get over it and move on. Family might be a bit upset for a while, but, ‘it was only me, nobody would really miss me for that long’.
But the intention was there, and it would only take a few careless impulses to make it happen. The same kind of impulses that lead to my self-harming; the scary ones I can’t control until it’s too late. And it was because of this, that a number of people became enormously concerned for my welfare.
Hardly surprising then that they felt the supervision of the psychiatric ward was my best bet. This presented me with a new set of challenges to manage. Instead of the comforting and familiar surroundings of my own home or the warm and friendly spaces in my sister’s house, I had to adjust to a hospital ward with its harsh and overbright lighting, noisy corridors, slamming doors and beeping machines.
And being a psychiatric ward, the biggest challenge of all is existing alongside fellow men who have an array of difficulties of their own they must face every day. From paranoid and angry, to delusional but gentle and then everything in between.
Some pace endlessly, some peek from their rooms briefly, like moles poking their heads out their burrows, and then vanish again. Most simply stay hidden in their rooms. I’m definitely of the latter category, not wanting to expose myself to the hustle and bustle of the scary communal area where I have no idea who I’ll encounter.
And yet, here I sit as I type these words, on the communal sofa while people pace nearby. Another man is sitting just to my left looking a little shocked. As far as I can tell, this is his normal operating mode so I’m not taking it personally.
Coming out here and sitting on this area was a challenge that I had to overcome. I was forced to by my neighbour across the hall from me. I will change names to protect the innocent, honour the dead and purely out of respect for the survivors…
We’ll call him ‘Pete’. He presents as delusional, possible Tourette’s, definite spectrum and quite a way into it, and with violent tendencies. But my first experiences of him were very pleasant. A little awkward because he has a particular way of speaking which is hard for me to keep up with and understand, but he seemed fairly safe if a little paranoid.
But then, even ‘sane’ people can be paranoid a bit from time to time. I wasn’t going to let a couple of silly comments write him off completely based on only twenty mins of talking to the guy.
Today has been a different story though. My second full day here and I was weak, tired, emotionally raw and in mild distress. What I needed was a restful, relaxing day with no hassle and no drama.
I was to be disappointed.
Pete was sitting just outside his room. I had my door wedged open so I didn’t feel ‘boxed in’. Pete said something about how you’re allowed to kill in self-defence and that he’d been kidnapped and held here against his will. I tried to assure him that a death would be the last thing they’d want to have to do paperwork for around here, but he was only understanding answers that agreed with him. So, I learned to just nod and say ‘yes’ to anything to keep the conversations progressing.
Then he said he could practise his self defence moves on a door on the room next to mine because, it would lead to the outside. And before I could suggest it would be a bad idea, he’s on his feet and then ‘BLAM’. The walls shook, my door wedge slipped about half an inch and a flash blinded my minds-eye.
‘BLAM’, he went for another go. These weren’t self-defence moves, it was mindless violence. It was just kicking a door in for the sake of it. ‘BLAM’, another kick and another flash. I began shaking. And I stepped backwards until I was pressed against a wall. ‘BLAM-BLAM’, two in quick succession as he starts to gain a bit of confidence.
Each time he scores a hit, I get an image in my mind. An image of me huddling terrified at the dining table in the kitchen, my mum and sister with me, and a madman is kicking at the kitchen door from the hallway of the house. He’s not an intruder, the door is not locked, there’s no rational reason for him to kick the door in, yet that’s exactly what he’s doing.
I remember the sound it made. The awful banging, thudding as a foot slammed repeatedly into a closed door. And then the door just toppled inwards into the kitchen. It was so smooth, so tidy. There was almost a sort of ironic serenity to it. And then there ‘he’ was.
The three of us were stunned and scared, I think also thankful that the house had taken the brunt of his anger instead of us, but that’s something that has stuck with me forever. It’s because of ‘him’ that shouting makes me revert to scared child-state, and it’s why mindless violence upsets me too.
And in that moment, as Pete was kicking the door in, I became a tiny, frightened child, each impact sending me further and further into that state. I had another panic/anxiety attack. My arms, my chest, my face, all went tingly and a little numb, and my legs collapsed beneath me.
I slumped to the floor and wailed, sobbed, cried pitifully. Desperate for the noise to stop, desperate to feel safe again. Desperate to be anywhere other than where I was. It had taken a few moments for them to rally together enough force, but some of the guys who work on the ward then arrived to wrestle Pete into submission.
At the same time, one of the nurses came to check on me and found me slumped, hyper-ventilating, and sobbing on the floor. She gently reassured me, helped me up and took me through to a part of the ward the Pete wouldn’t be able to access.
It took me an hour to calm down again. Part of the process was drinking some water. The cup of water was a challenge all of its own. Bear in mind that when I was sat down in the quiet area, I was still freshly out of force-10 panic and only just starting to wind down. My entire body was convulsing and my hands could barely grip.
“Here, drink this, you’ll feel better for it.” My nurse presented me with one of those flimsy plastic cups which was filled to the brim. The moment I took it, I flicked water all over the place, like a bloody garden sprinkler on speed, and because of my weak grip, there was an additional bit of oscillation that seemed to worsen the effect.
I think I got to drink about a quarter of the cup… The rest was on me, her, the sofa, the floor… Christ, it wouldn’t surprise me if I’d got the ceiling as well. You know that God-almighty mess a dog makes by drinking? The kind that leaves you wondering if the dog actually hydrated at all or simply moved water to everything within a four-foot radius of the bowl? That’s basically the sort of mess that I made with that little cup of water. It would have been funny had I not still be relearning how to breathe.
But this wasn’t the tipping point for me. After about an hour and a half, it had gone quiet and I assumed Pete had been dragged off to isolation. I felt like going back to my room. I got buzzed through the security door into my tiny little hallway and settled down.
A couple of quiet hours go by, sitting staring out my still wedged-open door when one of the nurses comes through, taps on Pete’s door and announced the menu for dinner options is ready. There was one of Pete’s trademarked barbs shouted back at her.
‘Christ, he’s still in there!’
He’s very, very specific about what he wants and how he wants it. In his world, he’s asking for something that makes total sense. In actual terms, he’s saying so much so quickly, that nobody could ever be expected to remember it all, and even if they could, some of it is just impossible. When you add that to a day-shift that was distressingly short-staffed, stretched to breaking point and all working ever so hard to just keep things working at a basic level while trying to contain a Covid outbreak, let alone pandering to petty minutiae, it’s a recipe for one of Pete’s breakdowns.
When he wasn’t satisfied with his food, he threw it at the hallway door to the main section, scattering rice and vegetable curry all over the place. He then spat twice, spun on his heel, marched into his room and locked the door. Though he could still be heard shouting away, talking to whoever or whatever was in is world to listen to him.
I signalled to the nurses through their office window and they quickly got someone to clean it up. I’ve already said they were all overstretched that day. No sooner does someone start doing something, they are needed for something else, so, curry and rice and tissues were swept into a corner awaiting disposal and the nurse was off to attend to her regular duties.
Pete storms out of his room about fifteen minutes later, ranting and raving like a lunatic that his ‘750ml of undiluted orange squash in a blue jug with a lid’ hadn’t been delivered within the allotted timeframe as requested. He then smiled at the clean door and floor, located the pile on the floor and proceeded to kick it all around the hallway.
Then the shouting starts again. Then the kicking at doors starts up again and, just like that, I’m that frightened young child again as those images playback in mind in ultra-HD clarity and Dolby Atmos sound.
This time, he didn’t wait to be wrestled to his room, he retreated of his own accord, but not before I had put my hands to my ears, tears streaming down my face and I shrieked as loud as I could for to “fucking stop”.
Once again, I was walked through to the main area where I could evade the violence and the aggression, the flashbacks and the fear. It was around this time that a good friend had been able to go to my home and pack some clothes and my tech into a bag for me to keep me sane, washed and clean during my stay here.
Once I received my stuff, I picked up my pad, MP3 player and my ear-defenders and left Pete to fester in his violent and angry world. Hopefully, by the time I return to go to sleep, he’ll have got it out of his system and will be settling down also.
But a curious thing happened while sitting out here; I smiled, and then I laughed. The smile came from above the sofa, a crude coat of arms had been drawn onto the wall, and above it were the words, ‘Lest we forget, those who stood beside us’. A touching little sentiment. It was nice. Scrawled in its child-like writing in crayon, made it – somehow – even more-so.
I wondered what else I’d find if I actually chose to look around a bit. A door, a silver plaque mounted to it that says “Ward Manager”… Or should have read that. Some clever soul has vandalised it so it looks a bit more like “War Monger”. That got a mild chuckle, but the laugh was courtesy of what I saw next.
Above the medication dispensary office, there’s a scribble. ‘NHS Debt: -£9, -£9, -£9, -£9, -£9…’ This really tickled me. I mean, it makes no sense being where it is, because you don’t have to pay for your meds inside a hospital, but still, the fact that most – if not all – of us will leave here with lasting prescription costs to carry for the foreseeable future and beyond, it’s a nice little bit of observation.
And that had a really profound effect on me. As the laugh subsided and I realised I’d felt a moment of positivity, I had to pause and reflect. Coming to this social area had been a challenge in itself. Less of challenge than learning to cope with Pete’s outbursts, but a challenge no-less. And despite having to dig into resources I didn’t have, I still found a moment to find some humour.
It’s so weird. I’m still that guy who is convinced he has no place in the world. I’m still that guy who feels unemployable, stupid and without any definition or purpose. And it can be said with absolute certainty that I’m not the first to walk into this place feeling so. But if others in a place similar to me, and many who are even worse off, can find it within themselves to graffiti funny little jokes onto the walls of the ward, then maybe there’s hope for me yet.
After all, it’s being around the other poor sods that helps to remind me I’m actually not faring so badly. Sure, my life is still pretty shit in several ways and it’s going to take a lot of work to put me and it back together again, but at least I’m not paranoid, violent, criminal or totally deranged.
I may be an anxious, emotionally unstable wreck, but I’m alert, I’m – for the most part – articulate, and under the right circumstances, I can function.
Let’s not count our chickens before they hatch, but perhaps now isn’t the time to completely give up hope either…
Watch this space.