Crazy English Summer, Part Three


crazyenglishsummerPart One / Part Two

I don’t know how long I stayed in the unit the second time. Days turned into weeks, and my brain slowly became mush from the boring daily routines and therapy. Twice a week, we would all be taken into a big hall and be made to do trust exercises – catching each other, that sort of thing – and I hated every moment. I was crazy, not five years old. I didn’t see how running under a big plastic sheet would magically cure my bulimia and general madness. One time, I found myself talking to an empty chair, like the plastic ones we used in school; the patients were encouraged to sit opposite a chair and pretend somebody who’d hurt us was sitting in it. We were supposed to tell them why they’d caused us pain, but all I achieved from the exercise was feeling like an utter twat. I chose to ‘speak’ to a girl who’d been one of my best friends all through primary school and into secondary, who’d done a runner as soon as I started losing my marbles. I told her that she shouldn’t have given up on me, and that I needed friends. The member of staff overseeing it all said I’d done a good job. Again, I didn’t see how it could possibly help. It didn’t. My heart wasn’t in it.

In fact, I had absolutely no desire to get better; I didn’t think there was much wrong with me or my behaviour. The horse had been led to water, but there was no way I was going to drink; I felt a great injustice at being locked away in some sort of crazy place when all I was doing was struggling a bit with teenage angst.

Evenings were the worst times. The staff gave all the patients a rota for making tea, toast and cereal. I felt enormously guilty when it was my turn; Victoria would chew silently on a piece of buttered toast, tears running down her face, threatened with hospital if she didn’t eat it. Sometimes it took her two hours. We were also expected to do our own laundry, which soon became my nemesis. I avoided it, terrified of breaking the machine or somehow doing it wrong. I wasn’t domestic in the least, and had never used the machine at home. The staff assumed I’d know how to work a washing machine. I never asked; I was too shy.

Oe night, after midnight observation, we heard shouting and door slamming. We peeked our heads out of the door to see Rachel being dragged out. The staff told us to go back to bed, and that she had ‘hurt herself'; we knew what they meant, and so when she came back the next day with a massive bandage on her arm, we weren’t surprised. Again, she’d used a hook to gouge at herself.

It was easy to self-harm, binge and vomit in PL. Although there were regular observations and checks, there were plenty of hiding places. I kept a package of broken razors in the cheap MDF drawers next to my cheap, MDF bed. Carla broke a mirror to cut herself with. We took it in turns to throw up, one listening out for staff while the other tried to get it over with as quickly as possible. We’d troop to the Safeway down the road once a week and stock up on binge-foods, Although it was supposed to be a closed unit (apart from short trips in groups once we were considered ‘safe’ enough. It only took me a couple of weeks to be allowed outside) the door was often left unlocked and staff rarely checked the signing in/out board in the cramped hallway.

One night, one of the patients (Richard; ADHD) went missing. He was soon brought back, and spent the night in an isolation room.

I was never isolated; I was nearly always on my best behaviour. I was still in thrall of authority and was afraid to truly freak out in front of the staff, which proves I wasn’t sick enough to be there. To me, at least. Having my freedom removed was killing me; I’d dream of being at home and cry at night when Carla and Victoria were asleep. I hated showing any form of weakness – the other patients called me mum – and I felt I needed to be strong for everybody else. They seem to be suffering far more than I was.

The psychiatric staff were struggling with my diagnosis. When I was admitted, it was with the belief that I had schizophrenia. I had been hearing voices and had become increasingly paranoid, suspicious of everyone and convinced that they could hear all my thoughts. I’d turn photographs around because I believed they could see me, and dressed under the covers in case there were hidden cameras in my bedroom. At the time, those thoughts seemed perfectly rational, and I’ve never spoken of those delusions before. I’ve been ashamed of them; they’re embarassing.

However, I was believed to be “too rational” to have schizophrenia, and too able to control my temper when I was in company. In fact, by the time I left PL I had been given an entirely clean bill of mental health; I was sane. Nothing wrong with me but the fact that I was fourteen and shy.

Most days were pretty quiet in PL; nothing like mental health units in films. There was the occasional outburst or brief spell of violence, but most of us were too drugged to kick up a fuss. There was only one violent patient – Chris – a tall, wide-shouldered, acne-ridden nose-picking guy with a tendancy to stare at my tits and shout “FUCK!” whenever he thought he could get away with it. He smoked in the courtyard when staff allowed him to, and once I passed him in the hallway. He grabbed my chest and laughed. I never said anything, but refused to sit near him in therapy. Chris would wander into the girl’s rooms, but staff soon shooed him out. I don’t think he’d have done anything; despite his obvious problems he didn’t seem like a rapist. Heck, maybe I should have mentioned it. I just didn’t think anyone would care. One thing I learned in life is that nobody believes crazy teenage girls.

Despite feeling more comfortable being in PL than I did the first time around, I still contested my need to stay there. Needing control has always been my biggest coping mechanism, and you have no control in a mental illness unit. You’re watched; eating, showering, when you’re sitting in front of the TV. You’re forced to play childish games to ‘build trust’ and swallow the pills they give you. If a member of staff says jump, you ask “how high?”, because these people, these so-called professionals, have complete control over your life. We had to sit through a talk on safe sex and, god forbid, how babies were made. Carla managed a sardonic laugh at this. Having been abused by her father since she was six months old, she didn’t feel she needed the biological side of sex explaining to her. I was still a virgin (that would change the next year) but I knew how babies were made, and I didn’t need to be sitting in a cold room, under stark flourescent lights, putting a condom on a banana. I wasn’t a child. If fourteen year olds know anything, they know how babies are made. It’s all they think about, after all.

Then again, Chris sometimes masturbated in the day room, so perhaps it was required listening for some of us.

Crazy English Summer, Part Two

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.

Part One

Crazy English Summer

Writing about the past used to be easy, back when I could distance myself. It was simple; pretend it never happened to me and look at the situation as though it’s a movie. I’m not the star, and the story is not about me. Easy. Over the past three or four years, it’s become more difficult to put the past into words; I’ve become more aware, more accepting of the things which have happened and I’ve come to realise that hiding the past in stories and pretending it’s all a twisted fairytale achieves nothing. In fact, it was the worst thing I could have done. Although the stories were true, I somehow stopped myself from believing in them until they became something beyond truth. Until they became a past I had never experienced, but watched from the outside.

I want to tell my story. Not from a misplaced belief that my experiences are somehow different, special or worthy of being read, but because I need to understand the tale for myself. I need to move on, to put the past behind me and accept all that has happened.

I’m not a great writer, nor a storyteller. Life has not always been kind, but neither has it been totally unkind. Some experiences, though, have stuck with me and have refused to budge. This is one of them.

Trust has always been difficult for me. From an early age, I struggled with the concept of trusting somebody, and until recently that hasn’t changed. The largest trust issue I have ever dealt with (with the exception of being sent to a special needs college, which I’ll go into in the future) is when my psychiatrist and my mother decided that I needed to be sent somewhere safe. Away from others, away from the ability to harm or starve myself, and under the constantly watchful eye of professionals. And so, at the age of fourteen, I was sent to a children’s mental health unit (which I will called PL).

Sectioning me was an option, although I chose to go in voluntarily as I didn’t want my future ruined by a big black mark on my record. Back then, the future was still hopeful.

The logical conclusion I came to was that my family hated me, that I’d let them down in some way and that I was to be punished for being crazy. I fought every step of that journey; I screamed, I cried, I begged, I promised to be a better daughter, a better sister. The idea of being locked away without my belongings, without coping methods… it was terrifying. How would I relieve the pressure if I couldn’t cut myself? What if they forced me to eat? What if they discovered what I fervently believed; that I was seriously ill and a danger to everyone around me?

I entered PL weighing exactly seven stones. 98lbs.

My arms and legs were covered in scars, cuts and fresh burns. They documented each and every one.

I was to be under constant observation, with the aim of diagnosing me with schizophrenia.

I was to be given three meals a day, without exception.

My suitcase was searched for sharp objects, laxatives, drugs.

I would see my family once a week.

I was to take anti-psychotic medication every day.

I was fourteen.

I can barely remember that year. The memories I lost never came back.