Looking back through my blog, I realised that I never continued my post about my time in a mental health unit. I suppose it slipped my mind. It was difficult to write that first post, because it meant I was opening up about experiences I don’t talk about much, and I suspect I’ll find the rest of it just as hard. Although I’ve left a lot of that time behind – and memories are often hazy at best – it’s still something which happened to me, which I experienced, and which I still get angry about sometimes.
My first impression of PL (the unit) is that it looked nothing like a crazy home. I was disappointed; I’d been imagining something out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, with long rooms filled with bed and nurses in starched gowns. In reality, it wasn’t unlike a large house, with a dark wooden staircase in the hallway and a lawn outside with a tree plonked in the middle. When I stepped out of my brother’s car with my suitcase, I noticed that there were forget-me-nots growing underneath the tree.
I remember a meeting; a sort of induction, then being shown to my room. I was to share with two other girls, which I felt uncomfortable with. What if they took my stuff? What if they were bitches? I was given the bed furthest to the right and told to put my clothes in a small wardrobe. I didn’t like to tell them that I’d need more space; I’d packed everything I owned, just in case I needed it when I was away. Separation anxiety was a problem back then.
I don’t remember saying goodbye to my mother and brother, although I must have done. I do remember sitting down to eat though; one charred chicken burger (without the bun, or salad or… anything) and a cheap ice cream pot. I sat at the big rectangular table, weighing up the other patients.
There was a thin blonde-haired girl with a Sylvia Plath poem blu-tacked to the wall next to her bed. She was bulimic. Another thin girl with dark, greasy hair in plaits and a scowl sat opposite me. Bulimic too. A bigger girl with a brown bob and a relaxed look was next to me, She told me her name was Carla, and later she told me that, like the other girls, she was bulimic, and had been abused by her father since birth. Her arms were covered in cuts and scars, but she had a naturally happy face. I warmed to her.
The boys were less memorable, bar one. I can’t even remember his name now, but there was one seventeen year-old guy with dark hair and darker eyes, who I fell a little bit in love with. I was going out with my first boyfriend at the time, and I was ashamed of myself for mooning over a boy with a guitar. We’d sit together in the day room (a ratty old sofa and a couple of chairs, along with a television and CD player) and listen to The Holy Bible, or go for walks on the local recreation ground (in a group, of course, with a couple of staff to keep an eye on us) and talk about music and how bloody horrible it was being a teenager.
It’s hard to explain all this, because memories run together, and I was locked in PL twice – for two weeks at first, then six – so some things might get mixed up. The general idea is there though.
For the first two weeks before I managed to get out, I cried constantly. Over everything. I cried if someone else did, or if a member of staff looked at me funny. I missed my house and my room, and being able to touch my things and feel secure. A few days after I was brought in, another girl joined us. She didn’t come downstairs for a long time though because she was on suicide watch. Occasionally I’d try to peek around the door, attempting to get a glimpse of her, but a member of staff would always shoo me away. Theories soon started; that she had been found trying to hang herself, that she was brought in covered in blood. We never did find out what happened, but after being on her own for two days she started sitting in the day room with the rest of us. A few days later, she left.
I spent all my money calling my mother and boyfriend from the payphone at the top of the stairs, begging them to bring me home. I’d promised I’d be good and behave, if they just got me away from PL. I hated it; I can’t explain how much I hated being watched constantly, having my every move checked. I hated being told when to go to bed, and I despised having to explain, over and over, why I wasn’t in school anymore. They held daily lessons in a big room covered in paintings. I think they thought it looked nice, but walls papered in the drawings of disturbed teenagers aren’t really the sort of thing you show prospective buyers, you know?
Try as I may, the ‘teacher’ (an older woman with grey hair and a twinset) couldn’t accept that at the age of thirteen I’d walked out of school and removed myself from mainstream education. Nor could she accept that I wasn’t being home-educated. Every day I had to tell her that the reason I had no work to do was because I wasn’t going to school. Every day she’d insist that was impossible.
After two weeks, my mother relented to my endless nagging and took me away from PL. Because I’d gone in voluntarily, they couldn’t stop her. I think I cried all the way home.
I don’t remember how I ended up in PL a second time, or how much time elapsed between stays. I know that during that time, my boyfriend and I broke up and I ran away, losing it entirely for a little while. I can only assume that having to get the police helicopter out to find me at 3am was the last straw for my mother, and so when my psychiatrist suggested that, unless I agreed to go back to PL, I would be sectioned. I must have had some sense, because I agreed again. In some part of my mind, I was aware that I didn’t ever want a sectioning on any sort of record. Life was turning out to be difficult enough already, without adding more fuel to the fire that was my ever-diminishing chance of a glowing future.
I packed more carefully the second time. Although my boyfriend and I had broken up, I still took the little pink stuffed rabbit he’d won me at the fair (Little-G, we called him). Admittedly, the rabbit had no head because I’d cut it off in a fit of rage, but it was a small comfort. I brought some make-up and books with me, preparing for the long days of nothing which stretched ahead and the inevitable jealousy of how beautiful the anorexic girls seemed. My father travelled with me on the train and we mostly sat in silence, looking out of the windows at the fields rushing by, at my home leaving me far behind. At one point, he turned to me and said, “I think you’re being very brave with all this”.
I realised then that I’d never given a single thought to how everything was affecting my dad. I knew my mother told him about my psychiatrist appointments and medications, but I’d never really factored him in to the whole situation. I was angry with my mother for agreeing to send me back, but my father didn’t play any part in it.I sat back and thought about my family, and how I could always rely on my dad, regardless of what my mother thought of him.
I settled in. Carla was still there, but everyone else had left to go home or to other units. The blonde bulimic had a flat. She wrote Carla a letter one day, telling her that while she’d been in PL, one of the staff members had been abusing her. We knew who she meant straight away; yet we never said anything. We were too beaten-down and in awe of supposed authority. Plus, we were crazy; who would believe us? We played rounders on the rec ground with the member of staff, and I seriously weighed up the possibility of me getting away with smacking him on the head with the bat. Repeatedly.
The day after I arrived back at PL, Rachel was brought in. She was in a state – ripped, bloodied jeans, a huge gash down her arm, and screaming like a banshee. She’d been brought straight from hospital after ripping a massive hole in her forearm with a hook. I was impressed; I’d been self-harming for years, and never had the guts to do that much damage to myself. Her freckles stood out on her pale face as she said, “hiya” and trooped upstairs. I got the feeling she’d been here before.
Next to arrive was Victoria. A tiny, elfin girl with oversized eyes and a nervous twitch. The first thing I learned about her was that she weighed exactly five stones. The second thing was that she had been raped years ago. Like many anorexics I had met, she had a tiny, mouse-like voice and apologised constantly. PL was her last stop before hospital, she said, and she had to put on weight or they’d put a feeding tube down her.
Carla and Victoria became my best friends in PL. We shared CDs and, when we went our separate ways, wrote to each other for a while before losing touch. Carla taught me bulimia tricks and how to fool scales, and Victoria squealed with delight when I did her make-up for her. We’d walk into the city centre when we were all allowed outside for a short while, and steal lipsticks from Boots and drink diet coke. Carla would smoke and I’d occasionally take cigarettes off her. At night, we’d lie in the dark and wait until after obs, so we could talk about why we were in PL. Carla said that her father kept sending her presents and begging letters, but she was ignoring them. One night, she turned to me and said, “I lost my virginity at six months old, who’s going to want me?”. Victoria would lie quietly, listening, occasionally chipping in with advice and input. She told us about her fear of men, and after that, Carla and I would form a barricade around her every time a man came nearby, daring anybody to touch our tiny, fragile friend.
I still went home at the weekends, and one day my mother brought me (in my brother’s car, I presume) back to attend a meeting. It must have been early on, because the staff were asking about my mental health history and medications. They also asked about my family, and whether there was any history of mental illness. What my mother said changed me forever.
“Her father is an alcoholic, he was violent. It’s why we separated”.
I sat in the office, chewing over what I’d just heard. I had no idea; not the slightest clue. Not that my father had been drinking (looking back, there were hundreds of signs, I’d just been too young to understand them) and certainly not that he’d ever hit my mother. Suddenly, a lot of things made sense. Why my sister, W, refused to speak to him. Why my mother was such an alcohol-nazi. Why she abhored violence so much, even in films. Why my father left us before I was born.
Up until that point, I’d been a daddy’s girl. I worshipped him. Afterwards, I went cold. I couldn’t bring myself to speak to him, or even look him in the eye. I still struggle.
I was given medication in PL this time, although I can’t remember what, or if they even told me. I think I may still have been on meloril. Before breakfast and bedtime, the patients would line up in the upstairs hallway and wait for their names to be called. Then they were given a tiny, white plastic cup of pills and a flimsy cup of warm water. It wasn’t like in the films; nobody sold their tablets or shared them out, we just took them and basked in the warm glow of whatever brand of drug we’d been prescribed for our teenage angsts.
- “But I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell, I know right now you can’t tell, but stay a while and maybe then you’ll see a different side of me…” (rummagingthroughtheattic.com)
- My Mother’s Mental Health (mizreelmikkoi.wordpress.com)
- Parents are bonkers! But mine takes the crazy cake. (mjcache.wordpress.com)
- Involuntary Commitment (thenarrativeimperative.com)