Please note: this story references self harm and suicide.
I remember the dazed, sickly feeling; the heat of the hospital and the incandescent fear. It had faded slightly on arrival, lurking in the background like a toothache slightly subdued by aspirin. I was angry too, at having made mistakes – big ones and bad ones that would change my life. A lot of the crazy things I had done were because of delusions, but also because of the fear of ending up in a place like this. I had often thought about it during the course of my life, although I was young. Of course the reason I was being admitted was because of these things, but at the time, it was difficult for me to see this clearly.
My parents cried and I remember shouting at them, seeing them as traitors for signing the section paper to commit me. I hadn’t washed in weeks and had rarely changed my clothes. My house had been full of rubbish bags, which had dead mice and birds in them that the cat had brought back. There were a lot of maggots at the bottom of the bin and I remember my sisters cleaning the house. My family had started to visit me, finding me in various states of disarray. At one point my parents had been there and called a doctor. She told me I was a pretty girl and had a lot to live for. I was too ill to ask her to take me into hospital – for me that spelled the end life itself. I grabbed one of the kittens that were running around the room and jabbed it with a knife. It squealed in pain and I felt instant shame at the action. I know that later it grew into a very timid cat and was eventually run over by a car. I always felt guilty about it.
But at the time, it simply confirmed to me that I was bad – not mad, I cut my arms and legs and even scratched my face with a piece of broken crockery. I kept thinking that I had to die, but thought that I was going to hell because I had been born bad and there was no action I could take other than to burn myself to death – this way I would purge my sins and avoid burning for ever. To say that being brought up a Catholic played a part in this just has to be true. However, having said that, whatever information I had been brought up with, I would have become fanatical about. I was to find out when I went into hospital that a lot of patients became obsessed with religion or outer space and a lot of us thought that nuclear war was imminent. I can remember poring over the Bible, thinking I could see the afterlife. As well as this, I was always reading horoscopes and using Tarot cards – believing that they predicted the absolute truth. I would watch horror films, believing them to be realistic accounts of life and was generally obsessed with black magic. The line between imagination and reality disappeared and I began to live in fantasy and terror.
I was attracting attention every time I went out, and I didn’t like it. It was normal in my everyday life as a young woman to have things shouted at me in the street from men coming out of pubs or working on building sites. Looking back, I suppose I must have looked vulnerable as some of the attention was from well meaning people concerned for my health and welfare. Other than that it was from men wanting to have sex and a lot of them would blatantly proposition me in places like Tescos or just in the street. Once or twice I was followed home, and I would fearlessly let people into the house. My flatmate was at the end of her tether with the irresponsible way I was behaving and rightly concerned for her own safety as well. One would-be suitor was a hitch-hiker who left me a gallon of petrol for some reason. I think he said that I could use it as a kind of currency any time I wanted to go hitch-hiking myself, and give it to the driver in return for a lift.
It sat in the corner of my filthy, cluttered bedroom for weeks – I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t do any hitch-hiking but remember being approached by a driver not long afterwards. He asked me if I wanted a lift anywhere and I said yes – I wanted to go through to Edinburgh to see my family as I was living in Stirling and I was finding it hard to get organised enough to go through. I had missed my grandmother’s funeral and repeatedly missed the trains to Edinburgh as hours would go by like minutes for me as I sat in a psychotic haze in my little bedroom, smoking and worrying about purgatory and hell. I got into the car and told him that I was going to go and buy cigarettes from the chip shop along the road a bit. When I got the cigarettes I ran out without paying and a few of the shopkeepers chased me out into the street. The car that I was travelling in made a hasty retreat at this point as he obviously didn’t want any attention bestowed on him. I always felt as if this was a lucky escape and that I would probably have come to harm if I had stayed in the car.
The days and weeks merged and I lost track of time. I became more and more distant from my flatmate and people around me, and every now and then, someone from my family would appear to see how I was. I later found out that my flatmate had called them because my behaviour by now was so bizarre. I would lock myself out of the flat and put the keys back through the door as I didn’t think I deserved to sleep in a bed or have a house or any money or possessions at all. I was also becoming more awkward and less pleasant as my delusions took control.
The final straw was soon to come. I was awake all sorts of odd hours, and I sat up one summer night contemplating suicide and that of course, it had to be done by burning or else I would go to hell forever. I lit a match and set fire to the blankets on my bed with the intention of lying down on top of it until I was dead. But after a brief moment of lucidity I came to my senses and began to realise how stupid and dangerous it was. Then I remembered my flatmate in the next room and smothered the flames. I went out for a walk around 6 am and remember having a cup of coffee in the railway station café. When I returned my flatmate was awake and shouting that I had set the house on fire. She had awoken to find the flat full of smoke with a gallon of petrol in the corner of the room. The blankets must have still been smouldering when I left the house and I didn’t realise.
It was just after this (and mainly because of this) that I was sectioned at the Royal Edinburgh hospital in Morningside. The thing is it took me a while to understand the gravity of what I had done and I still wondered why I was in hospital. I thought that I needed to be punished for what I had done, but alongside this I kept thinking that I was different from other patients and that they had made some sort of mistake. The same as the incident with the kitten – it wasn’t on my mind all the time either, and I would forget about it. But during the times when I did remember it, I didn’t really know what to do about it and how to make amends. I felt disgusted with myself for the whole escapade, and contrary to what I originally thought – there wasn’t a lot of counselling and psychotherapy in hospital. It was mainly drug treatment.
But while it was a place that had its shortcomings, I did find the hospital to be a sanctuary. I remember walking into the tv room of ward 3 and sitting down next to a pretty blonde woman. She was a little older than me and she poured me a cup of tea and asked me if I wanted a biscuit. I felt an instant sense of belonging, and a feeling that I didn’t have to pretend any more.
Although I have sometimes had a rough journey and many periods of isolation and loneliness in my life, the one thing I am very happy about now as I get older, are the people I've met through being in what I will call, 'the mental health circle.' I met fantastic people in hospital, and through all the volunteering, paid work and therapeutic support groups I have been involved in. Most people have periods of struggle in their lives - mine just happens to be with my mental health.
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