The waiting room in the hospital seemed very ordinary. Well, it was a hospital waiting room, so not that ordinary, but it felt no more strange than an ordinary hospital waiting room. There was no indication that this waiting room was for the lunatic, the crazy, the deranged. Because that was the primary preoccupation in that room. I kept feeling like some irreplaceable part of me was gone now. The part of you that says ‘I have never been admitted to a mental hospital’, is now missing. I mourned its loss.
My dad sat with me, my poor dad. My dad who had found me curled up crying on the floor on Thursday morning. I hadn’t slept. My tie still hung from the coat rail in my wardrobe. I had previously broken the light flex that hung from my ceiling so this time I’d tried the rail. I didn’t have the strength of will to let myself fall to it, the floor was too comforting.
My dad came in to bring me to Dungarvan for therapy. The closest I could find a decent therapist. My ‘recovery’ was, at that point, almost a part time job. Psychiatrist in Cork. Therapist in Dungarvan. Monthly blood tests to make sure my mood stabilising medicine wasn’t shutting my kidneys down. The blood tests left my arms with long purple stains, bruises that took days to go away, and then I’d have the next one. The medicine left me overweight, bloated and suppressed.
I was meant to be doing CBT worksheets for therapy. But they required honest answers, to mine myself for insight, to rank and categorise feelings that were confused and hidden beneath a fugue of sadness and tiredness. I hadn’t done the homework. I’d been told off the previous three weeks for not doing the homework. Or forgetting the sheets. I’ve always been too easily swayed by the criticism of those in power.
My first suicidal ideation came aged 15, when my maths teacher shouted at me in class. He said I was useless, a waste, a shame to my dad. My dad was also a maths teacher in the school. He said he would call my dad down to show him my awful work. He had a running ‘joke’ that they’d dumbed the junior cert maths course down so much that we were doing something that a smart 11 year old would have done twenty years ago. He completely belittled me in front of the class. He said I should be sent back to primary school to start from scratch. That night I sat on my windowsill and considered throwing myself off. Richey Edwards was my only companion that night. I’d been sad before, I’d self harmed before, but that was the first time the idea emerged that I should die.
The reason for my most recent attempt was, in that moment, that I couldn’t do the worksheets for CBT. But that example plays into how fundamentally people who have never been suicidal consider suicide. That might seem like a silly reason to kill yourself, but let me explain. I was told that I had to take my medicine, do my worksheets and I would get better. I was taking my medicine, as well and as regularly as I could, but I couldn’t make myself do the sheets. And I had nothing else. I felt so consumed by dread and unhappiness that I couldn’t go on as I was. And the only thing I was being told was the solution were these fucking sheets. Do the sheets. And I couldn’t. I was so fucking sick I couldn’t come up with ‘The Five Situations That Make You Most Anxious’ and rank them in severity from 1-10.
I didn’t feel like I had any options. And even then, that’s a superficial reading of why I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to kill myself because I’d failed out of college and then I’d had to postpone repeating because I was too sick. That all tied into the worksheet thing as well. It was February, coming up on the first anniversary of my manic state taking its turn for the worst I’d ever had. I didn’t feel like I had a future, I had no college degree, I had no hope of recovery, I was in an economy with no jobs, even for graduates. I was stuck living at home with my parents, all my friends in college or working abroad, sitting at home alone, doing nothing.
But even that is a superficial reading of why I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to kill myself because I felt like I wasn’t well built for the world. That I had some great existential defect that meant I was too fragile for the world as it currently exists. I felt that I was a terrible, shitty person that couldn’t help but hurt those that I loved. I felt that I never had enough happiness in my life and that positive moments were too few. I flitted from one vice to the next, drinking, drugs, smoking, cheating, hoping to fill a deep hole in myself. And it just made everything worse.
And even that is a superficial reading of why I wanted to kill myself.
I talked a lot in the car on the way down to Dungarvan. Dad didn’t know what to do with me so decided the best thing to do would be to take me to the scheduled appointment. We arrived in the therapists office where we talked again. Dad talked. I even stepped out for a second so that Dad could talk in private. We rang my psychiatrist. We talked to her. I’d never done so much talking, in a year that was already filled with talking. A year filled with pregnant pauses, awkward silences, but nonetheless the pressure to constantly be talking. To reassure my parents. To explain myself to medical professionals. To win concessions from university bureaucrats. To hold on to my girlfriend. Long walks down the sand dunes every day with my Dad, hoping to walk myself into being normal. Talking the whole time.
At the end of that particular bout of talking, I was told I would be admitted to hospital on Sunday. I had been waiting for eight months at that point for an admission. My dad was told to take all blades, ties, ropes, shoelaces, belts and anything else I could conceivably use to end my life out of my room. My parents were told to stay in my room with me, to not let me out of their sight until Sunday. There was no room at the inn, so my parents were drafted to be my suicide watch and gaolers. I had always kept a secret stash of blades in my room, since I was a teenager. Dad didn’t manage to find them, but I was too exhausted to try again anyway. On the drive home we stopped by a little cove and skipped stones into the surf. We didn’t talk. That was the best moment of the day.
I was meant to spend that weekend in Galway. My friend Sally was supposed to be the Chief Adjudicator at an intervarsity debating competition and I’d promised her I’d help. Texting her to let her know I wouldn’t be there was the first person I’d talked to all day that wasn’t family or a medical professional. I felt an absolutely crushing guilt, a massive burden. I felt like I was a useless friend – and as my parents stripped my room and settled in for 48 hours of non-stop watching, I felt like a terrible son.
Sunday was weird. Packing was weird. I was unsure what you packed for a stay in a mental hospital. I wasn’t sure how long I was going to be there. I brought gym gear, thinking that maybe I’d need it. I didn’t know what to expect at all. Somewhere between One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Irish college.
We had to fill out admissions forms. The cold, clinical box checking effort was exhausting. I told them I didn’t smoke because my dad was next to me. That meant I didn’t get cigarette breaks when I was on lockdown for the first 24 hours. My advice to anyone going to hospital is to tell them you smoke, even if you don’t. It means they’ll let you outside for a few minutes. It’s better than being bed bound. I don’t know how anyone could survive multiple hospitalisations without smoking.
My main worry during the paperwork process was to ensure that I wasn’t being sectioned. I don’t know if that was a possibility, but it was my main worry. Ireland is one of the only countries in the world where you can still be given ECT without your consent. I had informed Dad beforehand, I do not want ECT. Under no circumstances, no matter how bad I get, do I want electro-convulsive therapy. But I was still worried. I wanted to sign some kind of waiver that would prohibit the hospital from giving me ECT. Apparently no such waiver exists. So I just tried to underline that I was not being sectioned and would require permission to have ECT performed on me.
I was led up to the ward, where my belts, shoelaces, charging cables and the rest were taken from me. I’d packed my prescriptions too, but they were taken from me. I’d get medicine dispensed during my stay. There was a no WiFi on the ward. I was confined to my bed for 24 hours, sitting there trying to read. I eventually crumbled and rang my dad to ask him to top up my phone. I just checked Twitter then. Live tweeting the experience felt like it was more normal. I live tweeted my normal life, so if i live tweeted this it must be normal life right?
People started ringing my parents worried. Dad told me to stop live tweeting. I never understood why anyone would be worried at that point. I’d tweeted about being sad and unwell before. Surely they should have been worried then, not worried that I was now in hospital. I didn’t stop tweeting. The phone calls fell off anyway. The mundanity of it started to set in.
I was placed on the OAP ward, because there weren’t any beds in the Young Adult section. The old people all had the same issues as me, just the old people version of it. While the Young Adult ward seemed to be full of bipolar kids staying up all night talking and watching movies, up on the top floor I watched as manic old men paced the halls, asking for something, anything to do. My mania was mostly channelled into seeking new experiences, making new friends, going on the tear. But at some stage, for these men, that had passed into plaintively pleading with the nurses to be allowed to help with the filing, or to paint the ward. Something, anything to expend the energy on.
I was put on the bipolar programme, which meant I had to go to information sessions at 11am every morning and a group therapy session every evening. The food was terrible. I’m not a meat and two veg person, but other than breakfast, every meal was some kind of overdry meat, potatoes and peas. I would have killed for a curry, pasta or a burrito. Something with flavour.
It was day three of the programme when the programme coordinator took me aside. A nurse, she had taken her role extremely seriously, reading volumes of literature on bipolar and always attempting to show the cutting edge of the research. She was constantly suggesting alternative treatments and strategies. As a psychiatric sceptic, I found her very interesting.
“David,” she said. “We’ve been given some funding for a brand new treatment pilot. I think you’d be ideal for it.”
“Does it involve ECT?”
“No, there’s no ECT involved.”
“What does it involve?”
“Well our sponsor would like to keep that under wraps until after the treatment has been proven to be effective.”
“So you want me to sign up for a treatment and I have no idea what it is? No idea of the potential side effects? That’s surely not ethical?”
“Look, our sponsor is very clear – the treatment is promising and…”
“I’m not doing it.”
I tried to make friends on the ward, which was difficult since they were mostly much older than me. The third day I was there a girl was moved into the ward, but she had a room, she wasn’t in a bed on the ward. She’s a real person, so that’s really all I’m going to say about her because it’s not my story to tell, but she was nice. We talked a bit. I miss her.
It was hard talking to people on the ward, hard to start conversations. There was a generation gap, most noticeably, but also everyone was sick. It’s hard to talk to the depressed, they’d rather be left alone. ‘What are you in for?’ was the ice-breaker of choice for everyone. Between the programme and wandering around I managed to start to have some steady acquaintances. We would be distrustful of the NCAD students that were in, with their perfectly styled outfits, smoking rollies. We would judge everyone by their diagnosis, much like the outside world did. I was bipolar 1. That’s an impressive diagnosis. A hard one to live with. I was at the top of the pile in the bipolar stakes.
I started noticing that I was getting different food to everyone else. When we were getting ticked off in the canteen at meal times there was a little green sticker next to my name. I started getting salads and things, instead of stodgy dinners. I asked why it was happening but the nurses wouldn’t tell. The little blue sticker was next to my name when I queued for my Lithium and my Lexapro and my Seroquel. But as far as I could tell my medicine hadn’t been changed.
Friends visited, the hospital being in Dublin meant I got to catch up with people who were in college there. They brought books, which I managed to devour voraciously. There wasn’t really anything else to do. It made me feel a little bit better, to be able to read again. It meant maybe my brain could get some respite from the constant fog. Maybe I could read again. Someone brought me The Bell Jar, unthinkingly I can only assume.
I went out to get McDonald’s nearby with a person who I knew from Twitter. I missed dinner, not thinking it would be a problem. I was a voluntary admission after all. But when I got called back I was summed to a psychiatrist’s office. The thing you don’t know about being in a mental hospital is that the nurses do all the work. Invaluable, psychiatric nurses. They’re ever present. Some of the junior doctors come around, but mostly the interaction I had with doctors were students asking me to fill out surveys for them. I was a prized asset, bipolar 1 and very good at talking about it. The students mined me for all they could.
Anyway, I had yet to actually meet an actual psychiatrist during my stay. I was meant to have an appointment on Friday, but there were too many patients to be seen, so I was bumped to following Friday. I had expected my routine ten minute chat with a disinterested medical professional, who would then just reissue the same prescription, to be no pressing matter. My decision to go for an impromptu McDonald’s meant I didn’t have to wait any longer.
The hospital was usually well lit, all pastel colour walls and big windows. The psychiatrist’s office was just beyond the ward canteen, to the left. It was dimly lit and a large mahogany table dominated the room.
“You can’t miss mealtimes, David,” the doctor said from behind a mound of files.
“I just went for a McDonald’s. I’m a voluntary admission. I didn’t know I had to get permission. It was within visiting hours.”
“It’s important you don’t try work against what we’re trying to do for you here.”
“I don’t feel that I am? I get up on time very morning, I go to all my therapy and classes. It’s the first meal I’ve missed. That girl down the hall that’s always crying, she’s missed way more mealtimes than me. She’s just left stay in bed.”
“Your programme is very important David. I hope you understand that.”
“The bipolar programme?”
“Well that too.”
“What programme are you talking about then? What’s going on? Is this about the blue stickers? And the salads?”
“Don’t worry about it, David. Just make sure you keep complying. That will be all.”
A nurse ushered me out of the office.
Filling time is honestly the hardest thing to do when you’re in hospital and it leaves a lot of time for thinking, which is something that I’d studiously avoided since I’d failed out of college in a haze of mania. I used to walk around the gardens smoking to try and take my mind off things. I’d brought some tracksuit pants and runners so I decided that I’d try and find the gym.
The gym turned out to be located through a winding warren of corridors, a poorly maintained hall. There was a stage where some treadmills were located and some basic gym machines. The most used piece of equipment in the hall were the pool tables. I played a game by myself, limiting myself to potting all the striped balls. I couldn’t bring myself to get changed or use any of the machines. There was something about exercising in the equivalent of a rural sports hall that made physical exertion undesirable. The dust on the treadmills meant I didn’t fancy them. Also they were literally on a stage and my anxiety was too strong to allow me to start running where everyone would be looking. It was funny that all our groups and pamphlets promoted the benefit of exercise and the hospital’s gym looked like it hadn’t been updated since the 70s.
The next day in group therapy there was a strange man in a white coat taking notes. The coordinator looked uncomfortable at his presence. So did the participants. We were allowed take notes during information sessions, but group therapy had a very strong vow of omerta. This felt like an imposition.
The group continued as normal though, with the contributions perhaps a little more guarded due to the presence of an interloper. Then the observer piped up after I had finished speaking.
“David, do you ever think your politics might be informed by your illness?” he said. “You have very black and white opinions. You hold them very strongly. Do you think that might be the bipolar?”
“Ehhhh, no I don’t think so? I’ve been vaguely socialist since I was 14. I think being left-wing is informed by what’s going on in the world.”
“OK, it’s just we often see extremes of opinion in the seriously mentally ill.”
“Are you honestly asking me this?”
“We’re just trying to gauge the level of your illness.”
“Being a communist isn’t a mental illness.”
“Delusions of granduer are very common among people with bipolar.”
“Yes, I know, I’ve had them. But deciding to run for Students’ Union president in the middle of my finals and spending all my money on Haribo are delusions of grandeur. Thinking there’s a better way to order society isn’t.”
“You’re very defensive about this. Do you think that might be your bipolar?”
“I’m very defensive because I’ve read fucking Foucault. What the fuck is this?”
“It’s nothing David. Just monitoring.”
The coordinator said it was time for a break. The man in the white coat wasn’t there when we came back after we’d finished our cigarettes.
My parents came to visit at the weekend, they brought up some more books. We sat in the canteen in the front of the hospital, where everything is ridiculously expensive and we talked about their weeks. I made some tasteless jokes about my situation, my usual defence mechanism. We sat until 7pm, past visiting time, as the coffee in our paper cups went cold, hardy touched. It was nice to see them. I hardly noticed I’d missed dinner again.
When I got back to the ward there were two burly nurses standing by my bed. The psychiatrist sat side saddle on my mattress.
“Alright lads?” I said. They didn’t reply.
“You missed dinner again, David,” the psychiatrist finally said.
“Yeah, my parents came to visit. I didn’t think it would be a problem.”
“It is a problem, David. You’re jeopardising the programme.”
“I don’t know what the programme is.”
“Our sponsors are very insistent that the programme is a success.”
“Is this the programme from before? The one I turned down?”
“I can’t possibly say. Medical experimentation without consent would be a massive violation of rights. We would never agree to that.”
“Then what are you talking about.”
“It’s important you comply with everything you ask of us, David. It’s important for your recovery. You’re in the recovery phase now, here in hospital. We want to get you into the maintenance phase so…”
“Yeah, I know, I’ve been to the classes.”
“So it’s important that you comply.”
“I am complying.”
With that, the psychiatrist motioned to the two nurses and they pinned my arms to my side. I kicked and screamed as they dragged my down the hall, past the canteen and into the office. In the office was a large chair, like a dentist’s chair. They strapped me into it with leather restraints.
The psychiatrist flipped a switch and the dim gloom was transformed into brightness. A clean, clinical brightness. He adjusted the chair so my head was lowered down. I felt dizzy as all the blood rushed into my brain, my legs hanging up in the air like I was strapped to a seesaw.
The psychiatrist walked over to a box and started leafing through it. The box was emblazoned with the Lyon’s Tea logo. He pulled a stained rag from it and placed it on my face.
“This will fix you, David,” he said.
I could hear rustling and clanking as the three men started working on something.
Then the flow started. I could feel them trickling liquid onto my face. I coughed and spluttered. A strong tea flavour filled my mouth and nostrils. I felt like I was drowning.
“Why are you sick, David?” he asked, pulling the rag off my face after a minute.
“I don’t fucking know? Biology? Social conditioning? There’s no fucking jobs?”
“Again,” he said, pulling the rag down over my face again and turning a faucet. More cold tea gushed onto the rag. I wanted to scream but I just spluttered instead.
“Why are you sick, David?” he asked again.
“Because life is terrible and sometimes it makes more logical sense to want to die than to live in this fucking world,” I spat.
The tea flowed over my face, choking me and making me wish for death. This repeated and repeated.
“Why are you sick, David?”
“Because material conditions exist such as to alienate everyone from the product of their labour?”
“Why are you sick, David?”
“Because we can’t meet our needs under capitalism which forces us to salve our insufficiencies through mere commodity consumption?
I felt the tea on my face again and again, until I couldn’t face it any more.
“Why are you sick, David?”
“Because I don’t go for enough walks?”
“Very good,” the psychiatrist replied. “Now we can begin.”