You’re in hospital, severely infected, septicaemic. You’ve conscientiously handed over all your own medications. When your doctor comes to see you, she agrees that you can keep your eye drops in your locker and administer them yourself, because you’ve been doing it for years; and the pharmacist comes along and checks them. Fine. It’s written down in your notes. Sorted.
Late that Thursday evening. The drug-round. The nurse demands your eye drops from you. You point out what’s been agreed, that you can self-administer, but she still insists that she wants to take them from you. You refuse. She pushes it. You burst into tears. The nurse snaps at you, ‘Well, do you know how to put them in?’, and you say that of course you do, you’ve been doing it for years.
The nurse writes on your records that you’re verbally aggressive.
She tells you to stop crying and making a fuss. You explain that you’ve only just had four weeks at the Priory Hospital for severe depression.
You find out next day that she’s written lies on your record, says that you’ve just been discharged from the Alcohol Dependency Unit. ‘Aha!’ she’s thought. ‘This explains it all.’ Then she’s written after that, ‘Needs further psychiatric input.’
Because you insisted on putting in your own eye drops, you’re verbally aggressive.
Because you were verbally aggressive and crying, you’re a recovering alcoholic in need of a drink.
Because you say you’re not, you’re in denial.
Because she intends to win an invisible power struggle, you’re disempowered and diminished as a person.
Imagine how that feels.
So she’s still there and you’re hunched up in bed with the sheets over your head and you’re seeping hot tears and howling your distress and shaking uncontrollably and holding your water glass in your hands and the water is spattering over your angry arm where the canula is and you’re still in acute pain in your body too.
She tries to wrest the glass from you, but you grip it ferociously. This is the last piece of your environment that you can control.
‘You’re down for paracetamol,’ she says. ‘Do you want some?’
‘No,’ you say, from under your sheets. ‘The way I feel now, I’d save them up.’
‘In that case,’ she says, ‘I’m not going to give you any painkillers at all.’ And she writes down: Patient threatened suicide.
‘Please get me the phone trolley,’ you say.
Why does she think? So you can strangle yourself with the cable or throw the phone round the room?
‘Because I want to make a phone call.’
You phone your husband and he can tell immediately that you’re having a major panic attack. You implore him to come and discharge you, because you won’t recover here. Then you bury yourself under your sheets again to close out this awful ward and you cry for every unhappiness you’ve ever known.
A voice says your name.
‘Not someone else to talk at me,’ you say. ‘Just go away.’
But he doesn’t. He tells you his name is Dominic and he’s the medical house officer and he wants you to tell him what’s happening.
So you try. And he listens. And because he listens, you are lucid, and calmer, and he’s given you control because he’s listening respectfully and he’s not interested in a power kick.
He absorbs what you tell him about your history and he asks your permission to speak to the on-call psychiatrist, which is fine by you. By now your husband has arrived and he talks privately with Dominic, who understands perfectly and although the alcohol dependency lie has now surfaced, he believes the truth. He’s concerned and he promises to direct the nurses in how they must respond to this patient with a mental health problem. He requires that you are moved to a medical ward as a priority so that your severe infection can be nursed properly.
Now you’ve become a partner in your own recovery.
Imagine how that feels.
Pass on… two or three days later. The medical ward.
Canula problems; your veins are too thin. Three nurses try and fail, so a doctor is summoned. The nurses tell the doctor something about you.
The doctor breezes in. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘you know your own veins better than we do, so where shall I put this needle?’
You double-take and double check. You know what she means, but you ask anyway. ‘What exactly do you mean by that, please?’
‘Well,’ she replies, ‘you do take drugs, don’t you?’
They don’t understand why you burst into tears. You’ve been labelled again by your psychiatric history, and none of it is true, and you can’t tell them the truth, because when you try, they say you’re in denial and they tell you to stop being paranoid.
You ask them please not to use the word paranoid about you, because it has a specific psychiatric meaning which doesn’t apply to you. ‘Oh,’ says the nurse sceptically. ‘And what do you think that is?’
You try to explain, but she interrupts, shakes her head and say that it isn’t what it means at all.
You want to shriek, ‘But it is! Listen to me! I know my own truth!’
But you tell her that you can’t help crying, that you have an illness, that it changes the way you think in response to triggers and you can’t do a single thing to stop it once it’s triggered. That feeling under attack and feeling trapped is something which re-runs a video in your mind, a video which you don’t want to see ever again, but it’s playing right now and there isn’t a stop button.
‘Oh,’ she says. Pauses. Then dispenses wisdom. Practical psychiatry. ‘Well, this is the real world and you’ve just got to stop crying and get on with it.’
She hasn’t heard you.
‘Please,’ you say, ‘I want to see the on-call psychiatrist.’
‘Because I want to talk to someone who has an understanding of mental health, someone who knows what I’m talking about, someone who can explain to you that I’m not just upping the ante to get attention and I’m not a drug user and I’m not an alcoholic and if there was anything in this world I could do to stop what happens in my head I would do it.’
She gets up. ‘I haven’t got time to listen to this rubbish.’ And goes.
The psychiatrist never comes. He didn’t come on Thursday evening either, but you know that Dominic who listened on Thursday phoned him up and talked to him, got advice, so that’s reasonably ok. This time you don’t suppose he was ever asked.
That Thursday a nurse told you to stop making such a fuss. ‘You’re not dying,’ she said, as if she knew.
That’s the problem with psychos and nutters. Attention-seeking, childish, devious, exaggerating time-wasters who make exhibitions of themselves.
Someone should just tell them to pull themselves together.
(This is a true account of my experiences in an NHS hospital where I was supposed to be being treated for severe sudden onset cellulitis. And should you wonder whether I complained: I didn’t. I was too traumatised. No-one would have believed me anyway because they would have just claimed that people who have mental health problems are unreliable witnesses.)