The Meadow

I lie upon the waves of this endless meadow,
Carried across the sea of my unconscious echo.
Rising and falling with the tide of my reverie
Consumed by nature’s glorious serenity.

The sun’s persistence cannot wake this soul,
That hesitation does tentatively control.
Nor can it’s heat make me choose my path,
As I lay here, in the rapturous grass.

Even the wildflowers that brush my somber face,
Cannot stir my quiet refusal with haste.
Please! Let me sleep here forever, never to stir,
Just resting in the meadow, year upon year.

But even the sun in it’s day, must wake.
I cannot linger, for darkness sake.

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J

J was a friend of mine on the ward. We were both very different people, from very different walks of life, but got on surprisingly well. He had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was admitted to hospital around the same time as me. We both loved playing pool and we shared a love of sitting outside smoking and sharing stories about how crazy we could be.

To some people, J could appear to be quite threatening. He was very tall, of stocky build with a shaved head and several missing teeth, but I only saw how kind and gentle he was. He frequently made me tea, gave great hugs and was always there to listen when I was having a hard day.

It took just 24 hours for that all to change.

It was breakfast time when I overheard the nurses talking about a bed shortage at a neighbouring hospital, which meant three patients were due to be transferred to our ward. This wasn’t completely out of the ordinary and I didn’t really give it a second thought as I quietly went about my morning. It was only a couple of hours later, when I walked outside for my mid-morning fag, that realised there was going to be a problem.

J was sitting on the bench in the courtyard, joined by three, twenty year-old-something girls who were laughing and joking. As these were obviously the new patients, I reluctantly walked over to introduce myself. An elated J jumped up and said ‘this is V ! V,  I knew these girls from another hospital!’ I instantly felt that I was not going to be accepted into their clique. Hostility was oozing from their eyes as J excitedly introduced me. None the less, I responded politely with a quiet ‘hello’ but swiftly made my exit.

For most of the afternoon, I whiled the time away reading a Ruth Rendell book I found in the activities room. After a while, I decided to brave it and go back and go back outside but as I approached the courtyard door, I could hear shouting. I continued to walk outside, where I found J and a few other patients with the new trio, chanting and singing. Sometimes we had a friendly sing-song outside, but this was different, this felt antagonistic.

I spotted a couple of nurse leaning on the wall outside, seemingly monitoring the unruly group. I quickly finished my cigarette and went back inside to my crime novel. As the afternoon hours melted away, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Maybe it was the lack of nurse checks at my end of the ward or the eery silence that lingered throughout the corridors.

At 6pm I headed down to the dining room for dinner. When I entered the room, I saw J sat around our usual table with the new girls. He looked up, but instead of calling me over, as he usually would, he turned away, continuing to laugh and joke with his new-found friends. I took my soggy rissole and sat down on a neighbouring table. Before I could tuck in to my not-so delicious meal, angry shouts and a crash of doors broke the silence. The words “Get the fuck off me!” bellowed from the hallway.

We all looked up to see four burly policemen scramble past the dining room door carrying A, a patient who had been discharged a week ago. A flurry of nurses and doctors led the officers and A through the ward towards the PICU (Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit). His anguished cries echoed the halls, eventually leaving behind an uncomfortable silence that resonated throughout the dining room.

The silence was interrupted by one of the new girls.

“That’s fucking wrong.” she spluttered in a thick Welsh accent

Her crass words stirred something in all of us, but unlike many of the others, I knew that my feelings of empathy were distorting my perspective. I knew A wasn’t well and possibly a danger to himself – that’s what mattered. I abandoned my meal and headed back to my dorm, leaving the others to their angry whisperings.

At 10pm (and right on cue) one of the nurse’s shouted ‘meds!’ from the other end of the ward. I pulled a jumper over my pyjama top and clumsily threw on some slippers, before walking down the long corridor towards the dining area and nurse’s station. As I got closer, one of the health care assistants signalled for me to go straight in to the dining room.

‘What’s going on?’ I whispered.

He ignored my hushed question and gestured me towards the dining room once more. But just before I obediently complied, I heard a shout come from the courtyard. Through the glass doors on the opposite side of the corridor, I could see a large group of staff nervously standing outside. Under the orange glow of the courtyard’s security lights, I could also see that the staff were actually observing J, the three new girls and a couple of other patents, who had gathered around one of the benches outside.

After I was given my medication I was quickly ushered back to the dorm, where I got ready for bed. It was just myself and an older lady in the four-bed dormitory that night, so I had nothing to do but let the sleeping tablet take effect and drift off to sleep.

I must have slept for at least two hours before something woke me. Without moving, I opened my eyes and listened intently to the shouts coming from the far end of the hallway. I peered up at the doors leading into the dorm, watching the light from the hallway trickle through it’s frosted glass. My older dorm-mate continued to snore as I quietly pushed back my sheets and crept out of bed. A sudden crash of doors and more shouts from the far end of the corridor cut through the night-time silence and I jumped back.

I held my breath, frozen in the darkness. My curiosity urged me forward and I placed a hand on the wooden swing door, before cautiously pushing it open a crack. I poked my head into the corridor and checked for any staff. It was deserted at our end of the hallway, so I silently tip-toed though the door, keeping my back to the wall. As I shuffled further down the corridor, the shouts became louder and I could see fast-moving shadows at the far-end of the ward near the doors leading outside into the courtyard.

As I passed the neighbouring dorms, I could see a couple of other patients peering through the windows in the doors. I found safety behind a corner in the corridor, where I slumped to the floor and stared in disbelief at the carnage that was unfolding at this end of the ward.

About twenty feet away from where I hid, I watched two policemen pull a man through the courtyard doors back onto the ward. I winced at the sound of crashing bins and two more police officers dashed outside, followed by a few members of staff who barked threats at the clamorous collective who had obviously taken control of the courtyard. Some of the chants outside were almost certainly that of the new girls… and J.

Two police officers pulled one of the screaming girls through the doors. An out-of-breath nurse followed them inside, but just before he chased them down the hall, he turned and caught my eye. I sprinted back up the other end of corridor and darted into my dorm. My hands were shaking and breathing was heavy, but I found safety under my bed sheets. I continued to listen to the distant shouts, before drifting back to sleep.

The sunlight streaming through the windows woke me from my drug-induced slumber. As I opened my eyes, I remembered the night before and I felt a surge of anger well up within me. The anger churned inside and I thought about how much I hated J for getting involved with those girls – they ruined everything.

But when I looked at my phone and saw two messages from J, the jealousy disappeared and my heart sank;

“Got kicked off ward. Won’t let me back” 

“Dunno what to do.”

J was feeling as broken I was, but out there, alone.

Darkness

The darkness was comforting, like a loving friend wrapping a blanket of stars around your shoulders.

It was 2 o’clock in the morning and the air was crisp with cold, but not uncomfortable. Underneath the music in my headphones, I could feel my feet pounding the pavement  I was walking with intent, but without clear direction or purpose, across parks and through maze-like housing estates.

Occasionally, I would stop to sit on a bench, smoking four or five cigarettes, before gathering my thoughts and continuing my nebulous journey. The faux-fur hood on my navy coat was pulled over my head, covering most of my face. I felt protected and hidden from the occasional passerby – if I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see me.
After an hour of striding through the outskirts of the quiet city, I came to stop at the foot of a busy bridge. The orange glow from the the street lights masked the starry sky and I felt my comfort blanket quickly snatched from my shoulders.

I removed my headphones to be greeted by a torrid of traffic noise. I had walked as far as the city allowed. This was the end of my journey and the air felt colder now.

Dandelions

I gazed vacantly at the exam paper laid out in front of me. The words blended into a swirling pool of black and white that cascaded from the small wooden desk onto the dusty, tiled floor below. The only thing that was permeating my viscous mind was the incessant noise. I imagine it would have seemed silent to anyone else, but I could hear everything – papers rustling, chairs creaking, invigilators pacing, sniffing, coughing, breathing, sighing, tapping, scratching.

I was all too much. I jumped to my feet, causing an almighty screeching noise as the chair pushed backwards. My breathing quickening as I felt the eyes of three hundred students glare up at me. I swiftly turned and marched away from the desk towards the exit, discarding my untouched exam paper. I could hear ‘eyes forward!’ echoed behind me as I grabbed my bag and pushed past a nervous invigilator, who quickly jumped out of my way.

As I opened the doors to the outside world, the cool air hit me like a hurricane against battered cliffs. I gasped and looked up at the grey sky with tear-filled eyes. The words ‘you are useless, you are worthless, you are pathetic’ echoed in my mind like a record stuck on repeat. Three years of my university education, slipping away with each exam I failed to complete.

I proceeded to walk home, disconsolate and alone. The litter and discarded leaflets swept around my feet, emulating my scattered and fragile thoughts. The tears fell heavier as I took a detour through the playing fields, picking dandelion heads on the edge of the path. I squeezed the seedlings in my hand, extinguishing any form of life they once carried.

I came to rest on the bridge overlooking the river. I peered over at the beautiful torrid below and combed through the established catalogue of questions that resided in my mind – will I ever be happy? Would anyone notice if I disappeared? Should I just jump?

I took a deep breath and dropped the crushed dandelion into the river. I watched it disappear amid the silver torrent, wishing my worries would do the same.

The First Cut is the Deepest

Children often want their pain to be recognised. They want that colourful cast on a broken arm or a big purple bruise after a fall. They need their suffering to be acknowledged and appreciated – ‘I fell over and it really hurt – look at my plaster!’

So when people ask me why I self-harm, I explain using a similar analogy – ‘I hurt myself so I can see physical evidence of the pain inside and know that my suffering is real’.

I remember very clearly the first time I self-harmed. I don’t think I have ever shared this with anyone, but I have come to believe that by sharing our own parts of history, however painful, it can help shape the future for others in a more positive way.

I sat on the back porch after school, sneakily smoking a cigarette whilst trying to stop my boisterous labrador slobbering all over my jumper.

‘Get the hell off me, I’m not in the mood.’ I mumbled whilst pushing his wet nose out of my ear.

I had thirty minutes to get ready and leave for work. I was only fourteen years old, so I just washed dishes and waited tables in the local pub a couple of nights a week, but it was a nice escape from school and home. Not that I had a tough home life, on the contrary, I had a very loving family. I just felt more at ease and free to be myself at the pub. It was a place where I could smoke, swear and talk about whatever I wanted without fearing the wrath of my Mother or God (the former being much worse of course).

I threw my cigarette butt over the back wall to hide the evidence, but while I walked back to the porch, I felt a wave of unhappiness wash over me. I had been experiencing these waves more and more recently, but I just put it down to hormones and crash dieting. ‘Get over yourself you freak’ I thought as I walked through the back door, into the kitchen. I could hear my little brother playing his video games in the TV room next door, but I still felt completely isolated and desperately alone.

I opened the fridge and had a good rummage around. I eventually decided to slice up a large block of cheese, and before I knew it, I had wolfed down the lot. I put the knife back down on the chopping board and stared out of the kitchen window. I could see into the back garden, where a tiny blue tit clutched onto a feeder and two collared doves bobbed their heads as they strutted through the neatly cut grass. My mind drifted away for a second, before I quickly realised I felt full and wholly repulsive.

I ran to the bathroom, slammed the door behind me and forced myself to be sick. When I felt completely empty, I sat down by the toilet and wiped the mascara and spit from my face, wondering if this cruel, daily routine would ever end. I stood up, turned the tap and splashed some cold water on my face. catching a glance of myself in the mirror. I hissed at the tired reflection that starred back at me, haunting me.

As I reached for a towel, I noticed a small scrape on my wrist. I must have caught it outside without realising. I proceeded to gently run my fingers over the tiny nick, soothing the broken skin. When suddenly, an overwhelming urge forced me to fiercely scratch at the tiny cut, making it much larger and bloody.

My mind just took over and I ran from the bathroom, back into the kitchen. I picked up the knife on the chopping board and continued to gouge at the wound with the tip of the blade. I couldn’t stop. It was like all the pain was finally coming to the surface and I was able to control it. I was the one with all the power and I finally had something to show for all the misery and suffering inside.

The sound of my brother moving in the next room, woke me from my frenzy. I put down the knife and frantically wrapped my arm in some paper towel. I paused and looked out of the kitchen window once again. As I peered through the glass into the tranquil garden, I became consumed by the beauty of the lush grass and colourful flowers. My mind drifted away from the agony inside, to a better place. I even caught a glimpse of the blue tit, as he flew away through the branches of the conifer tree.

Lights, Camera, Action

‘Do you suffer from loneliness?’ The junior doctor asked, her tilted face emulating her patronising tone.

I looked up at her and the duty psychiatrist who were both perched on the edge of my sofa. I thought, ‘You may see a fat, depressed, single woman living by herself, but outside of this hell I seem to have fallen into again, I work 50 hours a week in a busy newsroom, earning enough to pay for this lovely flat. I have friends inside and outside of work, who I regularly stay in or go out with. In between that, I write, try to make time to see my family and sometimes sleep. So don’t pity me after seeing five minutes of my life. Loneliness? No.’

I looked back down at my feat and just replied, ‘Um, yeah, sometimes.’

Dr K, the older, male psychiatrist, left the living room to make a phone call, whilst I was left with the young, blonde, junior doctor who kept patting my knee, making ‘awe’ sounds. Thankfully, Dr K returned, but only to say ‘V, you’re going to have to come up to the hospital for the night, if that’s ok?’

I knew the deal. If I said no, I would be sectioned. So I packed a bag and followed them both downstairs to Dr K’s car. I sat in the back of the new BMW, listening to the two doctors engage in appropriate small-talk, while I watched the city scenery begin to flash past the window.

‘V, are you OK back there?’ Dr K asked over his shoulder.

I hesitated, but replied ‘yeah, fine.’

There is always a moment, shortly after I have spoken with my CPN or doctor and just before I am admitted, where I feel completely powerless. It’s usually in a car on the way to the hospital or in a gloomy waiting room. I feel as though I’ve walked into a film, not as a participating character, but as an observer, as if the film is going on around me.

When we arrived at the ward, I was shown to my room by one of the nurses while Dr K filled out some paperwork in the office. My room had a bed, wardrobe, sink and bedside table. The walls were painted off-white and the curtains featured the standard green and orange geometric pattern I had seen so many times before. I sat on the bed as the nurse sifted through my bag, documenting all the toiletries and clothes I had brought with me.

The young nurse looked down at her form and said ‘I’m going to leave you to settle in, dinner is at 5pm and then you’ll have your medical.’

I shut the door as she left the room and casually walked back over to my bag. I preceded to un-hook the long leather strap and set about finding a way to attach it to the wardrobe. I’ve often found that healthcare professionals think that imprisoning you on a psychiatric ward will magically relinquish any of your suicidal feelings. Unsurprisingly, you tend to feel even worse.

With the strap now around my neck, I suddenly heard, ‘What are you doing?! Staff!’

A different nurse had appeared in my doorway and sounded the alarm. I threw the strap on the ground and rushed back to my bed. I sat staring at the wall, while nurses piled into the room. I shut-down and walked into the film again, staying silent and staring at the drab coloured walls. They continued to badger me with questions. ‘Why did you do this? V? What are you feeling?’

The truth is, I didn’t have the answers.

 

Hope

Everyone had gathered around the wooden bench, smoking and chatting under the small window of stars above the courtyard.

After just two weeks of being back home, I had been re-admitted on to the psychiatric ward of the local hospital. It was a clear summer’s night in July and whilst I knew all the patients sitting around me, looking up at the vast night sky caused a wave of loneliness to wash over me. I looked back down at my feet and took a long drag on my cigarette. One of the girls sitting next to me, gently nudged my side and quietly said;

‘Look, that’s L, she’s new’

She was pointing at a girl walking out of the doors on the other side of the courtyard. The darkness made it hard to see her, but the orange glow from the outdoor lights revealed the new girl’s fashionably short hair and cropped leather jacket. As ‘L’ got closer, I suddenly realised I knew her, not as a fellow patient but as an old school friend. I couldn’t believe it.

L walked up to the bench, where we shared a brief silence before both throwing our arms around each other.

‘V!’ She exclaimed as we finally let go of one another.

‘I can’t believe you’re here – I mean, I’m sorry you are here.’ I started to babble as she lit her cigarette.

It must have been six years since I last saw L, when we used to sit next to each other in GCSE art. In a group of 15 boys, we were the only two girls (who ever turned up to lessons anyway). She was a port in a storm back then and little did I know, was soon to become one once more.

Over the coming weeks, I treaded carefully around L. I was aware that we were both in hospital for a reason and she was fighting her own battles. Yet, as time went on, she became my rock.

When it was time for me leave the single room reserved for new admissions, I was moved into the same dorm as L and two other ladies. I would spend a lot of the time sitting on my bed scribbling in my diary while L would sit at her desk, painting and listening to old Billie Holiday songs. She had acquired the desk from the activities room and surrounded herself with paintbrushes, parchment and all things beautiful. L was an incredible artist, full of passion and great ideas. I often wondered how someone so gifted and full of spirit could be driven to this hell hole.

Both of us came from similar backgrounds and it soon became apparent how much we had in common. We found it easy to talk openly about what had lead us to this point in our lives. We even managed to get the old video player working and we would both curl up on the sofas watching old films from the eighties, reminiscing about happy and not-so happy times.

One day, L decided to start a new project. She wanted to paint a mural on a wall beside the wooden bench in the courtyard. Some how, she managed to convince the ward manager to give her the funding for paint, brushes and anything else she needed. I moved my diary-writing to the bench outside, while she painted the wall and listened to music through her headphones.

Before long, a beautiful bird surrounded by soft white clouds and autumn leaves, appeared on the once dirty and desolate wall. When deciding on the words that the bird carried in it’s beak, I could think of nothing better than “Hope” is the thing with feathers, by Emily Dickinson;

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all.

I’m not a very sentimental person but these words still mean so much to me now and I wear them on a necklace everyday.

Nearly two months of being in hospital together and just before L was able to finish the mural, she heard the news that I had been dreading – L was to be discharged.

The day she left, I helped her pack. I was so happy that L was feeling well enough to go home, but a part of me was breaking inside as I carried her things down to the ward entrance. I hugged L tight as the ward staff chit-chatted with her understandably excitable parents. As I watched L walk out through the doors, I felt that wave of loneliness hit me square in the face once again.

I was inconsolable and ran to the dorm sobbing with my face in my hands. I wanted to go home too and the one person who made this place bearable had gone away. I threw open the curtain around my bed and wiped the tears from my face, I went to dive under the safety of the covers, but something caught my eye. On my pillow was a note, wrapped around a paintbrush. I felt my heart lurch and I quickly sat down to open the elegant piece of parchment cloaked around the brush. In the most beautiful writing, these words were inscribed;

“There’s not much I can give you – you already know so many beautiful quotes and inspirational films, books….
So, here’s hope. I didn’t have any… Now I have some, and I share it with you. Love, L”

The next morning, I put on my headphones and walked outside into the courtyard. I stood in front of the wall, took a deep breath and dipped my paintbrush in the sky blue paint left on the bench.

A week before I was discharged, I completed the mural and I hear it’s still there. L’s hope was left for me in the wings of that unfinished bird and I like to think that I left my own bit of hope for others, who happen to find themselves sitting on that bench.