Wednesday, 3 June 2020

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

In July 2015, I was voluntarily admitted to the Thurne Ward at Hellesdon Psychiatric Hospital, Norwich for a period of 10 days. I haven't written anything about this episode so far because, to be honest, it still traumatises me five years on. However, I feel that I need to set down my experiences in order to hopefully move on. So here goes.

After several weeks of home visits by the Crisis Team - I remember one morning that the guy in front of me suddenly asked me: 'Would I like to go into hospital for a while?' The question stopped me in my tracks. Up to that point nobody had really mentioned hospital. We had done medication and talking therapies but the possiblity of a psychiatric ward had not arisen. However, he asked in such a matter of fact way that the enormity of what he was suggesting seemed to pass me by. I was fully aware of how ill I was and was desperate for something to alleviate my pain but was this it? I was suicidal, anxious, depressed and having delusions that I would be homeless. Nicki had patiently dealt with all my daily ravings for several months now and I was conscious, even in my distressed state, that she needed a break. (She was also running the house and looking after our daughters.) So, I found myself saying yes. To be honest, I didn't really know what else to do. Phone calls were subsequently made and remarkably (based on the normal poor provision of mental health beds in Norfolk) a place was found for me that afternoon.

I will always remember my arrival at the hospital - limping in with my blue holdall and Nicki by my side. I remember being buzzed through the prison-like double doors and into the reception area. I remember my bag being searched and my razor and nail clippers being removed. I remember being taken to my room (cell) which had a single bed with rough blue sheets, a small sink with push-button taps, a window that opened a crack only and which had no ligature points.

Even now, it's hard to explain the effect of being on the ward. If you were in a good place, it would be still be a disturbing experience. But, if like me, you were going through the circles of hell, it can became completetly nightmarish. The first thing that struck me were my fellow patients. They came in various shapes and sizes. There were the slow ones and the fast ones. The slow ones were often too depressed to move out of chairs or who walked in slow motion across the day room. Then there were the agitated ones, like me, who paced quickly back and forth. There was one guy with Borderline Personality Disorder who shouted a lot, a guy with long hair and a black cape (like an extra from The Lord of the Rings) who lay on the floor and talked to himself. He seemed to have lost all his teeth. There was a tall guy with Bipolar who bizarrely was allowed out to drive his car. (One day I noticed that the car had returned with a huge dent down one side.) One patient with incredibly bad depression stayed in his room for most of the time I was there and only appeared at meal times. The depression had so incapacited him that he had to be helped to the table and once there could barely lift his knife and fork.

But there was worse to come. My first night was like something out of The Shawshank Redemption. My room happened to be next to the entrance to the bedroom area and every time anyone went through the door it banged loudly shut - vibrating my whole room. Therefore I couldn't sleep - even with the help of the aptly named Zopiclone. Not sleeping, as it turned out, was the least of my worries that night. At some point I decided that I needed a wee so I tried to get up, but infortunately I fainted. (I had fainted earlier in the day while bringing tea upstairs at home - spilling it over myself and the carpet.) I can't remember if I called for help as I fell but a muscular female nurse suddenly appeared and immediately started to do a blood sugar test on me. I remember that there was blood all over the sheets. I think she concluded that I didn't have low blood sugar but called in another nurse to double check. They discussed me as though I wasn't there - then finally left. The rest of the night I fell in and out of sleep - interrupted hourly by torchlight shining through the door glass to check I was still there.

For me, the whole experience on the ward was like being in a latter-day Bedlam. During the day there would be periodic alarms go off when the SWAT team, as I called them, would suddenly appear mob-handed to subdue some patient who was kicking off. The team were always decked out with latex rubber gloves.

At other times there were surreal moments - like when the then Health Minister Norman Lamb turned up with a small entourage of suits to inspect the ward. I have a lot of respect for Norman Lamb and his campaigning to bring parity for mental and physial health - but when the party arrived I felt like an exihibit in a freak show.

After a couple of days though I settled into a nightmarish routine. Breakfast at eight with fellow patients in dining room hands shaking terribly; day-time TV in day room - pacing the small garden or attempting to read EDP; mid-day med run; lunch in dining room; trying to write something on my iPad in my room but hardly managing to string a sentence together; Pointless (which I still can't watch today); tea; evening med session in meds area; evening sandwiches and then sleep.

The evening med session was a sinister affair. It was coordinated by a black nurse who kept calling me Mr Cameron. I would sit in the large black chair which I noticed had arm restraints while he put tablets into little paper pots. At that time I was on antidepressants, anti-pyschotics and anti-anxieties. I also had to take a daily laxative. This was completely bizarre for in the seven years prior to being ill I must have had the loosest bowels in the UK. However, now I was going for three days without a poo and literally had to work it out with a pencil. The nurse would hand me the little paper pots and also a paper cup of water and watch me swallow them - one after another. My hands shook badly. I didn't like the room as it was packed with medication and needles. One of my biggest fears while on the ward was that I would end up, like my mother, having ECT. There was also a thing call a depot injection which sounded horrendous which I didn't want to experience.

My time was also punctuated by visits. In this respect, I was very lucky. Nicki, who happened to work on the Hellesdon site, would visit me every lunch time and every evening. My friends David and Nigel came to see me - as did my parents. I was aware that some patients had next to no visitors. This may have been because they weren't local. This is one of the most iniquitous things about mental health bed provision. Often there are no beds available locally and patients are sent out of county. This means that at a time of crisis it can be difficult for their family and friends to visit them. Seeing a familiar face in the nightmare of the ward is hugely important. A local EDP journallist called Steven Downes, who was on the ward shortly before me, was sent to a Priory Hospital in London when no provision was available in Norfolk.

I was also allowed out on a visit with Nicki and the girls. I remember she took me to the cafe at Reepham Station. I remember sitting there - agitated and slightly freaked out by the other customers. I was also acutely conscious that my daughters were seeing me in this terrible state. I remember the drive back to the ward - I couldn't keep my legs still. Reepham is on the Marriotts Way and was one of my favourite MTB cycling destinations but, on that day, it seemed a long way away from that.

The other punctuation was my meetings with the psychiatrist - of which I had two or three while I was on the ward - usually accompanied by Nicki. These were not really exploratory but were about reviewing my medication. As I was not really responding to the various meds, he just kept upping the dosage or transferring me onto a different medication. I couldn't help thinking that he must have been on a big salary and what he did could have been peformed by a prescribing nurse. He did at one point ask me if I had had a happy childhood and he also seemed to be concerned as to whether I could touch the end of my nose with my hands. The meetings were also full of other people so there was no sense of privavcy. There were note takers and trainee psychiatrists and various nurses from the ward. Obviously privacy was a thing of the past.

One misconception I had about psychiatric hospitals was that they offered long term care. In fact, they are mostly about short-term crisis intervention. I assumed that I would be kept in for longer or transferred to another ward - particularly as I still felt distressed in every possble way. But by day 10, I was introduced to my Community Care Co-ordinator. He would, apparently, look after me once I was back at home. This came as a shock to me as I didn't think I would ever be discharged - let alone in two day's time. I didn't want to stay on the ward - but I wasn't sure how I would manage at home either. I was still depressed and anxious and psychotic.

But the day of my discharge arrived and I was given back my razor and my nail clippers and a bottle of drink that my friend David had brought me. Nicki thanked the ward staff and gave them a card and a box of chocolates. I was discharged with a huge paper bag full of meds - largely laxatives (:-)). I was buzzed out of the double doors.

If I had to write a trip advisor review for the ward what would I say?  Well, I would be the first to admit that I was very ill and needed some kind of intervention. Something clearly needed to be done. Nicki needed a break; I needed help.  But was going onto the ward the answer? In retrospect, I think not. As I said earlier, the whole experince of being on the ward is traumatising particularly for those of a sensitive dispostion. I'm sure that I have had elements of PTSD over the past five years. Some of the things I saw were the stuff of nightmare and will haunt me forever. I'll never forget that first night on the ward or the SWAT team or the shit on the walls or the screams in the night or the flash of the torchlight at the door. Some of the staff were empathetic but others were intimidating. Has care for the mentally ill advanced all that much? I'm not so sure. Obviously we have all the medications these days which undoudtedly helps in many cases - but not in all. Essentially a lot of it is about containment and preventing suicide. Curing the problems is the hard part.

Above all, I think it's the stigma of having been on a pysch ward that is the hardest thing to bear. I wasn't sectioned but I was there. Forever more I will have the 'loony bin' label round my neck. I know I shouldn't see it like this - but I do. It's so completely different to going into hospital for a physical complaint. There is a massive stigma/embarrassment. I know that many famous people have been on psych wards at various times and have returned to normalish lives again - including the actors David Harewood and Christopher Eccleston and a cyclist called Tim McKenna who I follow on Twitter. Good old William Styron was too.

Anyway, by writing this blog, I'm hoping that I may be able to put some distance between me and Nurse Ratched.

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