By Ruth Carter
Key Themes: women, companionship, search for independence, mental health services for women
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The story begins as R is dumped at the door of the psychiatric hospital by her husband and is totally disorientated by alcohol and by the residue of the tablets she has taken that night.
The story revolves around the strong bonds the women in the psychiatric hospital forge and their support for each other.
It is seen through the eyes of R who becomes something of an observer.
It deals with a variety of mental health issues and the treatment on offer, which generally consists of enforced medication and “nicotine therapy”.
No counselling or rehabilitation is provided and the exercise bike is kept in bubble wrap in a cupboard.
It also poses questions of human rights abuses, especially for the majority who are “sectioned”. No right to vote. Small violations of hospital rules can result in a patient being confined to the ward for several weeks, although none of them are a threat to the public. In addition, visiting rights can be curtailed.
The whole story is seen through R’s eyes. She is the only voluntary patient so is allowed out but when she comes back, she is body searched, and her shopping is emptied onto the bed and rummaged through. She expresses a feeling of humiliation but is reminded that if she complains she too can be sectioned.
Two women have ECT. One, Thelma, recovers her ability to speak coherently within weeks, but Kit, who also undergoes the treatment, has trouble with even the smallest recollections, deteriorates with each treatment and eventually has to be reminded of her name. She doesn’t recover.
Nicky, a huge woman with livid tattoo, a history of self-harm and a foul mouth, becomes the matriarch, looking after the weaker members of the enclosed society.
The book also looks at the standard of care offered. Some staff are supportive and able to relate to their patients while others verge on the sadistic. As an example, a young Filipino is sexually assaulted by a fellow inmate in full view of staff who merely monitor the situation. Two of the patients intervene but are rebuked for interfering and have their home leave cancelled.
The women’s time is concentrated on the weekly review meetings which decide whether they can have home leave or even a walk in the garden. There are no set appointments so a six hour wait is not unusual.
When two of the girls are accepted into a half-way house, the others throw a party for them and a collection is made. However, when R returns with the food, most of it is put in the bin because of Health and safety issues. The girls rally round and organise a dance, being only allowed to eat crisps and nuts.
At the end of the story, R is eventually allowed home but has now become aware of the destructive nature of her marriage. Her husband is patronising, tactless and belittles her. But now R has gathered enough strength to leave him.
This story is about the heroism of women who make it through their personal traumas only to be met by the gates of the system.
It is about those who have no voice.
About the Author
I was born on a small farm in the Lake District but left to do teacher training in Birmingham. I taught for many years as a Special Needs Co-ordinator but left to write.
I have a daughter, a son, a dog, two cats and a husband.
All that I write is the truth, nothing is just from my imagination. I hope it might change people’s minds about how it really is.
R’s brain was too muddled to understand just what type of hospital she had been admitted to and agreed to his suggestion because she needed to sleep.
Sean emptied R’s handbag onto the bed. She was embarrassed by the sticky hairy sweets that the children had given her. He took a pair of eyebrow tweezers, a biro and a box of matches.
“I need my pen, I need to write. You can’t hurt yourself with one.”
“Actually you can. Last month a girl pushed one through her ear drum and punctured her brain, that’s why we’ve introduced the rule.”
“Well I wouldn’t do that.”
“You might not, but we have to be careful.”
Sean picked up the offending items.
“Probably see you later; I’m on until ten, then at eight in the morning. No peace for the wicked.”
He winked at her as he left.
The letters wriggled, the words seemed to laugh at her. She didn’t understand most of it but managed the visiting times. She rang her husband on the mobile to tell him that they were seven until nine. She unpacked, and then walked into a corridor.
“Can I have that?” a nurse asked as she saw the mobile R was using to try to explain the situation to her husband. He had hung up.
Another nurse spoke to her. R knew her name from the plasticized label pinned to her lapel. It was Sarah.
“I expect to see you in the lounge. You need to socialise.”
When R entered the room there was a fat woman in a nylon night dress who was muttering incoherently, “Uncomfortable, uncomfortable.”
She was touching herself, her crotch and arm pits, standing in the centre of the room blocking the television from the assistants. On top of her nightie she wore a thick, slightly soiled, woollen jumper, stained with the remnants of an earlier meal which R assumed to have been breakfast, because there were glutinous thick yellow marks on the left side.
There was a girl in black clothes and purple nail-varnish.
Another woman spat on the floor. There was a strong smell of milky coffee and toast, with a suspicion of urine.
She looked round the room. There was a fat television which was bolted to the floor and a collage on the wall from a previous Christmas, all torn tissue and deflated balloons wrinkled with age.
A woman stood up and started to shout.
“You bastard, it’s your entire fault, you pushed me down the stairs, you didn’t care. I lost our baby, and your sister is no better, she’s a real whore.”
A nurse walked towards her.
“Come on back to your room, can’t have you upsetting other people.”
It was too late for R; she needed somewhere to hide, the noise and the bizarre behaviour of the other people disturbed her. She found bathrooms and toilets but the floors were too cold to curl up on. What she wanted to do was hug herself away from everything.
She found a room with a flipchart. She hid behind it. All was quiet. She thought she was in hospital but didn’t know why, she was confused and scared, too much confusion, she had enough of her own problems. She looked round the empty room she had found. There was an exercise bike, covered with bubble wrap; she noticed four mats encased in a shiny plastic.
She tried to settle down, block out the world around her. She knew now where she might be and was frightened. It was a place where mad people were sent. It would be alright, Dave would take her home after visiting time. The doctors would realise that they had made a mistake.
The door squeaked; Sean the nurse smiled at her.
“We’ve been looking for you. You are a silly sausage. It’s meds time.”
The nurse took her to a line of people. She hoped they would give her Librium; it should have a soporific effect. She’d had it before. It should stop the DT’s. Her hands tremored. It didn’t help in R’s case: her craving for a cigarette was greater. She found her way to the smokers’ room because a girl had explained how to get there.
There were boxes she needed to climb over but as she stepped on them, they turned to tiny filaments of colours she had never seen before. She tried to play with them, catch the newness. If she concentrated she could move them and enjoy their unfamiliar tint. She still wanted to see her boxes but thought she might be being observed. She hid her thoughts in her pocket and leant on the wall for some kind of stability.
The next morning she ate her Weetabix, remembered not to tell about her shapes or talk to her cereal.
This product was added to our catalog on Wednesday 31 October, 2007.