A small, neat man of 60, thinning hair and grey beard, his weather-beaten face and faded navy blue jacket told of long, solitary vgils amid endlessly crashing seas. He seemed to sink into his armchair as he lit yet another cigarette with nicotine stained hands before breaking the silence. ”I’ve seen it all and it’s taken it’s toll. Too many women, too much booze, my wife suing for divorce.’ This self-educated man gave me much to ponder as we sat talking well into the night. ”I tried to kill myself’,’ he confessed remorsefully, ”because of too much living.” Each one told much the same story. Such was mental health behind the High Walls in the late 20th Century.
An ancient broad oak table divided the ward in two, one one with ringed seats and a TV, the other a space for quiet reflection. Patients sak deeply into leather armchairs and into themselves, lost souls absorbed in their own thoughts becoming one with their misfortune. A young man with long blonde hair stood at the table occasionaly stepping back from his work totally absorbed in a painting. This figure’s initiative set off a train of thought. I wished I, too, had followed his example and not let depression get the better of me. I relive life on the wards in my imagination hoping a choice made now can project itself into the past, and not only atone for, but remake my earlier self forever.
I see myself entering the Staff Room where Mr Brownlow resides all day reading a newspaper behind a wooden counter which lifts up for access or egress from the main corridor. I argue the pros and cons about the futility of a psychiatric service cutting patients off from the community. I speak of my firm belief in tackling problems at their source and respecting the dignity of the individual. There’s a thin veil between madness and genius. If only I’d known what I know now then, but I was naive in the ways of the world.
The days and nights seemed to lengthen with no hope of escape. A ‘prisoner of war’ camp minus the barbed wire housing the off-beat, down at heel, and cranky; a living mausoleum of broken lives. The long corridor was rumoured to be a mile from end to end, the longest in existence. Contorted figures, heads bent, hands in pockets, stalked the white tiled solitary tunnel for hours, an abject embodiment of Monty Python’s ”Ministry of Funny walks.” Beneath lay an ancient dungeon where unruly inmates were once chained to the wall, the shackles still just visible. Those allowed outside idled by beneath giant beech and sycamore trees which seemed to conspire with the gross Victorian sandstone edifice itself. Across ploughed acres lay the hospital farm where sqealing pigs were slaughtered for tomorrow’s breakfast. Not that the inmates got much. All this encircled by the High Wall, a crude reminder of a bygone age imprisoning those beyond the pale.
I first met Arthur when I was working as an intern. I dreaded his grizzled features appearing round the door. He’d plan his arms on the counter and rest his crewcut head on his hands until he drifted off along the avenue after ‘dips’ to roll his own. No male patient worth his salt would be without his cigarette roller. Next, he would stand in the newsagents for an hour reading the news upside down. Jimmy was quick to follow. An awkward stick insect, partly deaf and going blind, he was a strong candidate for most wretched creature on the planet. He took abuse from almost everyone. He was the yardstick by which we could all measure our humanity. Society had turned its back on Jimmy. In the canteen I ran into Janet Her tired sad eyes and sensuous downturned mouth told its own story. She was on the hunt for a male. One day she brought me a gorgeous bouquet of orange flowers, but she was too far the wrong side of the tracks and was discharged soon after. I graduated with an Honours Degree in human nature during my time behind the High Walls.
Back on the ward I asked to see the duty psychiatrist to try to get out of a rut. Instead of the drugs, I wanted to try my hand at meditation to confront the darkness within. She was a tall, elderly, bespectacled lady with swept back grey hair and a worm expression as if tired by the hopelessness of helping lost causes. She sat back chewing her pencil before frowningly submitting to my request, but only for a short period of time. If I could just get my act back together and make something of my life ! ”The further one moves from the centre the less one knows” I’d read, and I had been far out.
Yet from that depressing collection of broken lives one can find some solace. Any negative experience conceals a deep lesson within it which one may not see at the time. I would sit or stroll alone each day beneath the ancient venerable trees far from the madding crowds where my faith seemed so fragile. It was to be the beginning of a long painful journey to find one’s true self and bring peace to a disjointed mind through self-acceptance. The Asylum is now a distant memory long since bulldozed to the ground together with its awful stigma. I was one of the lucky ones. I got out and graudated with Honours two years later. But I’ve been out of step all my days, the heavy price paid in a soulless society for the stigma attached to mental illness.