[first published 4 November 2012]
Remembering my first psychiatric hospitalisation, 13 weeks after the birth of my second son. A painful experience, induced with chemicals to bring about the birth when the day staff were on duty. Little pain relief, it was a cottage hospital, and like ‘bite on a bullet’ time. I was living with in-laws and this brought its own pressures. And ended up going voluntarily into Hartwoodhill Hospital, Lanarkshire, with my first puerperal (postpartum) psychosis. It was September 1978, I was 25 with a birthday at the end of the month.
The psychiatric acute ward environment wasn’t what I’d expected and the regime required taking psychiatric drugs which I didn’t want to do. But I had no choice and these were forcibly given until taken orally with no resistance. I’d been breastfeeding and had to be bound, to stop the milk coming. This was very painful, more so mentally than physically, for I enjoyed feeding my son and didn’t want to stop doing it. But I had no choice for my baby was back home and I was hospitalised. Also the drugs meant I couldn’t have fed him myself anyway.
A song playing in the ward at that time was ‘You abandoned me Love don’t live here anymore” by Rose Royce. It described perfectly how I felt, abandoned by God, separated from my babies, my sons 13wks and 2yrs old, the love of my life, being a mother.
The first thing that happened on being admitted was that my clothes were locked away and pyjamas had to be worn, I think so as to deter escape, for the ward was an open one with doors only locked at night. However patients did run away and we used to see them heading off in their night clothes down the drive, when sitting in the cafe at visiting time. I thought the pyjama rule was very silly and was more about keeping us all under control. I had known this anyway about the psychiatric system since a 17yr old.
Once I conformed to the drug taking there was an added pressure brought to bear on me, to consent to receiving ECT, electroconvulsive or shock treatment. Nurses called me into their office and spoke about the benefits of ECT. I’d seen patients queuing up to get the treatment so knew that it was the ‘done’ thing. I also knew that I didn’t want it, because my mother had got many courses of shock treatment in the 50’s and 60’s, against her will, and I thought it barbaric. So for me being forewarned was being forearmed.
The nurses tried to get me to sign the ECT form, I remember this clearly, through the fog of Chlorpromazine, but I wouldn’t do it. And that evening, when my husband came in at visiting time, we made our escape, me in my pyjamas, out to the car and back home. But the sudden withdrawal of psychiatric drugs caused problems physically and severe muscle spasms, my neck going back, and I had to return to the ward. Very scary as I thought the ECT would be forced on to me like the drugs had been. I was at their mercy.
By this time however I wasn’t psychotic any more, and I was a voluntary patient, so the ECT couldn’t be justifiably forced on me. But the nurses did keep saying to me that if I’d taken the shock treatment I would have recovered quicker like the other patients. I didn’t believe them and thought this was bullying behaviour. And anyway I didn’t want to have my memories zapped, preferring to remember everything. Any psychosis I’ve had has been a positive experience, it’s the treatment that’s been the negative and traumatic thing.
I was only a few weeks in Hartwoodhill when I was eventually allowed to leave. This was achieved by playing the game of appearing to accept what the psychiatrist said. Waiting hours to meet with him, and it was always male doctors back then. Trying not to show the inevitable restlessness of being on the anti-psychotic for it might have been held against me as a sign of mental illness. We knew the rules of the game, the patients and peers, and that we had to look as if we were compliant even if inside we were fiercely rebelling. We weren’t going to let the b****** grind us down.
Getting home was a relief, to see my boys again, and so began the challenge of trying to withstand the depressive effects of the Chlorpromazine. It was a long winter and I remember the water freezing up in the pipes on the farm. Brief moments of joy, like sledging in the snow, as gradually I recovered from the psychiatric treatment. Within the year I’d tapered the drugs and came off them, recovering completely. And the whole experience had made me a stronger and more confident person, like a transformation.
We had a small flock of sheep, I did the lambing, sold them at Lanark Market, transported them there in my mini van. In 1980 I got on to the Krypton Factor, described as a ‘shepherdess’, from 10,000 applying, interviews at STV Glasgow, to the final 32 on screen. It was an enjoyable experience although the assault course and death slide confirmed my fear of heights.
At the same time I started to do community development work, focusing on children’s activities, and this was mostly voluntary. Eg mother & toddler groups, playgroups, play courses, activities that tied in with my own sons’ requirements. As they got older, moving on to playschemes and after-school clubs, driving the community minibus, school involvement and church work.
I see psychotic episodes as opportunities to become more fully human and to expand potential. The psychiatric treatment for me was always the challenging element of the experience. Trying to retain some control and resisting what I could when in a psychiatric setting that was oppressive. Governed by people who didn’t know me when well and were more about treating the symptoms and behaviour rather than the person inside. It was a battle for me to retain a sense of self while others tried to take it away. I am glad to have survived the battle.