As I walked through the landscaped gardens the old brick buildings cast long shadows towards the arboretum, but as we turned the corner, sunshine shafted through the chestnut trees. I thought about my painting and whether I would finish it today….
I wasn’t on a country house retreat. I was in psychiatric hospital in the late 1990s. It was an old Victorian asylum. The men’s wards were named after famous Shropshiremen; the women’s after trees! We were on our way to OT, where virtually everyone went for two hours each weekday morning and afternoon. We were made to get up at 8am, just as we had to be in bed for lights out at 10.30pm. If we had to be up, we might as well be out. Anyway, it was a nice walk.
The wards weren’t locked, we were free to come and go. Those on section were simply expected to stay in the grounds, and a surprising number did. Our ward held 25 women and 17 of us slept in the main dormitory. We knew the best and the worst of each other; confidentiality barely existed. We had no privacy but neither could we isolate ourselves.
The centre of activity was the smoke room. All our mischief was planned there. Once 14 of us “sneaked” off to the pub for an hour. We were back for the check list at 7.45pm so all was well.
Twice a week several women would miss breakfast and return to the ward distressed and disoriented after ECT. I even met someone who had psychosurgery in her youth. Some of us had blades tucked away in our unlockable lockers but no one ever stole them, not even the nurses. Occasionally someone would start riffling through people’s possessions but as everything was in sight it was soon stopped. A rare circumstance where absolute lack of privacy had its benefits.
We could choose whether to eat on the ward, or in a canteen in the grounds for both staff and patients.
Our ward felt safe but when I visited the male wards they seemed tense and menacing. Drugs were readily available within the grounds, and the nature trail was more likely to reveal stoned patients than rare plants. Many things were bartered for drugs and fags, from odd trinkets to sexual favours. Even so, we were encouraged to spend time in the grounds as it released the ward’s pressure valve.
Apart from medication and OT there was little treatment to speak of. We got a few minutes 1-1 with a nurse each day and saw our community psychiatrist once a week at ward round. But mostly our therapy was time, routine and peer support.
Being in hospital was horrendous because of how I was inside, but the environment probably did me less harm than good, and from my later experiences of hospital, that’s fair praise.
Image of Middlewood Hospital, courtesy of Martyn Jenkins on Flickr.