Crazy Soup for the Soul by Laura Freeman is the third in this year’s series of short stories written by students of the Science Communication Unit at Imperial College London.
“Stigma and discrimination ruin lives. They deny people with mental health problems the opportunity to live their lives to the full. They deny people relationships, work, education, hope and the chance to live an ordinary life that others take for granted. The following short story is an autobiographical account of life in a psychiatric hospital. It chronicles the impact it has had on the author in the hope that in sharing her experience she can help decrease the stigma of mental health.”
I hear voices telling me to kill myself. They wont go away, they tell me that I am worth nothing, that there’s is no point in me being alive because I’m just a waste of space. The problem is I agree with them.
Two years ago, after returning from a night of heavy drinking, I fell so low that I decided to take a scalpel to my wrist. Relief washed over me until I looked down at the blood pooling around me. So I panicked.
I wrapped a towel around my arm and ran to the hospital. Next thing, I’m being told I lost a lot of blood but that I would be okay. I was not going to be okay.
My biggest fear was how I would explain this to my boyfriend. That turned out to be the least of my worries. The psychiatrists were on their way.
I hate being in the psych hospital; it’s like a prison for the soul. They tell you when to eat, sleep, smoke and take medication. There is nothing to do; watching TV is the limit of available excitement, but you can’t even hear that because the other patients are shouting and screaming at each other or things in their heads.
I met three types of psychiatric nurses: lovely, distant and sadistic. Shrinks act as if they can’t hear anything you say and if they do they often just dismiss it. One asked me questions he already knew the answer to until I got so mad I nearly jumped off my chair and slapped the bastard round the face. Yes, nearly. I am not that stupid.
Psych wards themselves qualify for a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum as they display all the characteristics: no talking, no socializing, everything repeated within tight little boundaries and I was stuck there. Hidden from the world behind locked doors and reinforced glass.
The first friend I made there was Mo, a fat Asian man in his 30s. Mo had paranoid schizophrenia, which meant, like me, he heard voices. He had been on the ward for nearly a year on section; he was not very fond of authority, or so he said. I didn’t blame him; the thought of smashing the nurses office with a baseball bat had occurred to me more than once.
Mo and I would talk over tea, toast and cigarettes about nothing. Mostly we passed the time trying to put psychiatric diagnoses on the patients and sometimes the nurses. He helped me to adjust to this alien prison. He didn’t mind that my speech was all over the place. He made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
For the first few days, I felt a strange sense of peace on the ward. It was safe, if a little intruding. I had my own room and enough art materials to keep me going until Armageddon, so I would be okay. My boyfriend came to see me every day, even though I was a total bitch towards him.
Dealing with the voices was tough. They were talking about me, telling me to hurt myself. I hated being alone as it was just them and me but I struggled to construct a sentence so talking to someone was exhausting.
One day, a new patient arrived. Rose was once a nurse, but now she was a middle-aged woman with schizophrenia, and she was seven months pregnant.
Rose screamed abuse at anyone within 20 meters, patient, nurse or doctor. She filled the ward with racist slurs and homophobic tirades, but nobody tried to shut her up. She had a fearsome right hook, and was very, very pregnant.
Out in the smoking area, a small outdoor cage just next to the dining hall, Mo and I would sometimes chat with Rose. She told us in disjointed speech about how, as a nurse, she used to put people in strait jackets if they were badly behaved. She said they used to force people to take their meds with injections. I was strangely curious about this woman.
With a cigarette in her hands, Rose almost seemed normal. She made me think about my career. She made me wonder if I was going to end up like her. She made me see myself as an old coot, forever screaming and ranting in this hole. It made me feel like I needed to get away from this place and back into normal life.
After a few weeks, I tried art therapy. With Rose on my mind, I started to draw artwork that reflected how I was feeling. It was painful to put my darkness onto paper, but it felt good.
Soon there was another admission to the ward. Heather was only 18, but told me with some pride she has five diagnoses: Asperger’s, antisocial personality disorder, ADHD, schizoaffective disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.
Somehow, I found Heather quite pleasant, if a bit edgy. While she didn’t get on with Mo, it was nice to have someone young to talk to. Heather said her mum couldn’t cope with her any more and dumped her on the ward. Heather’s mum was all she had in the world and she had abandoned her. Would my loved ones, my boyfriend, my friends abandon me too when they got fed up with me? What about my social worker, would he leave me to cope on my own? I just couldn’t manage.
Working on my artwork became my therapy. It distracted me from the destructive voices plaguing my mind. I spent most of the days in the activity room doing artwork like this. The small but quiet room became a place where I could relax and feel a little better about my situation.
My sanctuary was taken away from me when Rose and Heather had a fight. It started off about tea, so I’m told. Something to do with one pushing in front of the other. Within seconds, it escalated into maybe the loudest shouting I have ever heard, and certainly the most profane. There was a flurry of punches, kicks, and furniture across the kitchen. The alarm went off, but the fighting continued. Then five nurses turned up to stop the fight, followed by four security guards and then another ten nurses before the women could finally be separated.
I watched, along with Mo and the rest of the ward, in a kind of sadistic trance. Rose, still throwing her fists and legs, was dragged to the activities room and locked in. Heather was heavily drugged and taken to her room. Then it was over, and everyone diffused back to the nothings they were doing before. I walked to the activities room and looked through the window. Rose was shredding my art.
I called for the nurses, but they refused to go in just to get my drawings. So I watched as all my therapy was torn into confetti. Rose watched me back through the window; she was angry and wanted to cause someone pain, and she didn’t care whom. I just sat outside the room crying. I was still crying when Mo came over with a cup of tea and told me it was time to go for a cigarette. Resigned, I got up.
The next day and the days after that, I was still locked away from my art. I resorted to sulking in my room. The nurses told me staying in my room all day was not acceptable behaviour. They never told me why. When I refused to leave I was physically removed and the door was locked.
Now I was really alone. No art materials, nothing to do but sit and be with my voices. I wanted out. I hated this place more than anything so I asked for some leave to go to the shops. They gave me two hours leave so off I went.
From every pharmacy I passed, I picked up as much co-codamol as I could. I hid twelve boxes in my underwear, and made my way back to the ward. It wasn’t a great plan – twelve boxes of meds aren’t inconspicuous even beneath a coat – and I was found out. I thought I was going to be in big trouble.
The nurses just took the meds off me. No questions, no bollocking, no nothing. That made me feel even more depressed, and now I had no means of ending it. I wanted to go cry and scream in my room, but that was still locked, so I hid in the toilets until they came and physically removed me, my heels scraping along the floor as they dragged me into the common room.
There was nowhere for me to hide. I couldn’t leave the ward and the communal areas were full of people dealing with their own daemons. I didn’t want to be anywhere near other people. I wanted to die but that choice had been taken away from me. There was nothing I could do but pretend to watch television. On the outside I sat still as a statue. Inside I was screaming at the top of my lungs in anger and fear at the voices that were plaguing my mind and my captors who would not let me be alone.
The next day I got my precious activities room and my art materials back. I was still angry but I decided to make a conscious effort to try getting better again. I drew pictures over and over and over. Despite the voices I strived to talk to the other patients. I sat myself in art therapy day after day. And slowly, I began to work through what had happened to me as a teenager and what was happening to me now.
I felt a little better. The medications began to take the edge off the voices I was hearing. My mood was improving. As I changed, the ward took on a different personality. It lost its shackles and became a purgatory for those too sick to look after themselves. Attempts at treatment seemed half-hearted or absent. As soon as people showed the most miniscule sign of being able to look after themselves, they were let out with little follow-up. That was all they could do with the little resources they had.
My final meeting with the ward psychiatrist was quite amicable. I almost felt a modicum of respect from him. I was allowed to leave on my own terms. I was discharged back to my social worker who came to see me every day and also my community psychiatrist who saw me frequently. I went back to work on my PhD a couple of weeks later. I was still unwell and was hearing voices (I still do) but I had made the decision that I was not going to let this stop me. The scar and stitches on my wrist also served as a stark warning as to what can happen if I let my illness get on top of me so now I know when I need to ask for help.
Every day I am alone. My boyfriend, my friends and colleagues all know that I have bipolar disorder but the reality is this: People get fed up of you talking about being unwell all the time and I am sick of it. I spend so much of my energy putting on a happy face to the world and why should I? I feel there is no one who will truly understand and be able to stop the feeling of being alone even though I am surrounded by people who care about me. That is the truth of severe mental illness; It is a daily battle and I will always and forever be alone, except for the voices in my head. The only thing that accompanies me to the depths of my insanity is my artwork. It will always be there for me and for that I am eternally grateful.
Laura Freeman is currently studying for an MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College.