West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Yesterday afternoon, we took a drive to Bolton Abbey, realising when we got there we didn’t have any money to pay. We drove to Ilkley and stopped off on a walk to the Cow and Calf rock; it was so windy it nearly took Luke away! Charlie whined and Elizabeth lost her hat. We all laughed, it was hilarious, all of us staggering about holding onto our hoods. Then the cold rain, shot with hailstone, hit us with a vengeance and we rushed back to the car. Our faces were red and Luke hardly had any breath left. I suggested to drive to Menston, because I hadn’t been there for some time, in fact, for fifteen years.

When I was fourteen I went to Highroyd’s Psychiatric hospital as an inpatient on their adolescent unit called Linton House. You may know of it as West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum. I went online and discovered this: http://www.highroydshospital.com/insight/linton-house-adolescent-unit/

These pictures really reminded me, everything is so much bigger in my memory than those thin corridors. And it seems even sadder, as the place in the pictures, is so dilapidated and empty yet full of echoes of its troubled past. I remember the view of the girls’ dormitory well, I remember where I slept and how it felt not to be at home. I remember the view over the main hospital, great dark gothic buildings that struck fear in my heart, because nobody could possibly imagine the agony of the people within its walls. The shabby NHS sheets and curtains. I remember the wind whipping around the dormitory in the night and keeping me awake. I remember the crying and the screaming. I remember the blood and the scars. I remember Dr. Manny. I remember the two way mirror and the medical room where I went to get cleaned up after I cut my arms. I can even remember the way things smelled. I remember Debbie, Nikki, the two Sarahs, (Angie Jumanji). I remember suicide attempts and slashed wrists. This place, it was terrifying- the lengths we would go and the pain we were going through. We were just kids. I saw things there, experienced pain, that has virtually matched anything I have seen or experienced as an adult.

I sometimes, return there in my poems. It was a fascinating place. Self contained, its own little village. It got under my skin. Today I wanted to go there and say yes, I was here, it was real, it actually happened and everything you feel about it now is valid. When we arrived we found, to my amazement, it has been rebuilt or re-imagined (bizarrely, they have retained the clock tower and decorative roofs) into a residential park called ‘Royds Park.’ Children play happily in its grounds. I can’t imagine who would want to live there, with the permanent memory of the weight of unbearable human suffering. I think they should have let it stand, as a mark of respect for all those thousands of people who graced the doors and four walls (many who died there!) of the hospital through the ages. The forgotten. Nobody will ever know what things went on inside in the asylum. We know enough. We can imagine enough. But, people don’t want to remember. They need to demolish it, to be able to forget. They need to forget padded cells, confinement and ECT that went wrong, Insulin Shock Therapy, and psycho-surgery. They need to forget these things happened and that it was allowed for so many years.

I remember how I came to rely on the place. I needed it. I needed to be able to express myself, and there, at times, I could. I cut off all my hair. I painted and drew. I sang in front of people. I was not just withdrawn, not just crying, shut off, angry and desperately sad and alone. When I look back, I am sad, to think of the other ‘YP’s’. When I remember I feel so much pain and sadness. Children should never feel that way.

It was as though we had all been severed from reality, the real world held nothing for us, nothing but people treading on dreams. Nothing but that sharp, cold feeling of mortality and the razor edge of madness. It was the start of what was to be over a decade of hospital admissions for me, of feeling not there, of being dissociated and alienated and lost. It’s hard to come back to this; my memories seem so distant now, they’re barely memories at all.

I would love to know how the other girls went on in life. I don’t think I’ll ever know. I don’t think I could bear to hear bad news. Those girls are forever to me, forever in my heart and mind. In spirit, forever, free, wild, young.

It seems I’ve been tamed. I’ve been medicated. I’ve been sobered and now I have some control and it’s difficult to look back because it’s as though, I was a dozen different people, making dozens of different mistakes. I think of how young, naive and poorly I was and how nothing could have helped me. These days I barely get out, not with other people, I don’t see much of anyone, and I like it that way. I like to be in charge of my life and my moods, though I do feel as though the drugs control me, that they keep me down, but that if it weren’t for all the drugs I would be dead now, for sure. I gave it one more week, I was prepared to live one more week to see if the injections would work and I never thought they would. That one week was crucial. I am so glad I gave myself that last chance. I have survived. Many people did not.

http://www.highroydshospital.com/insight/the-mortuary/ This is the grim reality of mental illness. I have decided that people are so repulsed by mental illness because they recognise that if it ever happened to them, they would lose control, lose friends and family, lose dignity, become disempowered, misunderstood, broken. The thought of being locked up somewhere because you’ve lost your mind is a nightmare. It’s a very real nightmare for a lot of people. This is all about fear. Stigma is about fear, the absence of empathy or understanding and fear is contagious. It brings us closer to death. People don’t want to be confronted with the reality of it, that we’re not a nation of perfect, balanced, happy minds. Is the stigma lessening? I’m not sure. There’s literature out there, TV adverts, posters in waiting rooms. We’re obviously trying.

I recently went to an interview for a voluntary job working with people with, amongst other things, mental health problems. When pressed, I disclosed that I have a mental health problem and had been stable for a couple of years. The interviewer scoffed, there was ‘no way’ he would let me work with anyone with mental health problems ‘because I might know one of them.’ Because, we’re all best friends. I know all the mentally ill people because we’re a great big gang out to infect everyone with crazy. He was so rude to me, and I thought, this is a man who is supposed to be empowering people with mental illnesses. It took me a while to recover from that incident, I really felt torn up.

Maybe this sensitivity is a blessing not a curse, but as I grow and develop as a writer, I become even more introspective, even more isolated. In the asylum, we were in it together. Often I can’t relate to people anymore. I don’t think there is a happy ending to this blog, I’m not going to succumb to the pressure of a happy ending. I think that above everything else, people are afraid to feel bad and admit it. It’s a tough thing to do in a society, where we are always looking for the antidote to despair in consumerism and in ‘being positive’ about everything. We are weak or self-pitying, if we feel anything other than in control, buoyant, accepting, ‘happy’…some people can’t handle another person’s feelings but then some people can’t handle their own feelings. It’s about being real. It’s about being honest. Next time someone asks you how you are, don’t lie.

Somebody committed suicide down the road from here by the cemetery a couple of weeks ago. There was half a dozen police cars on the scene that morning, people had found him and were obviously distressed. It didn’t make the papers that day or the next. He was the dad of one of the children in my daughter’s school. There seems to have been a number of high profile suicide attempts and of course, Gary Speed’s untimely death, over the past year. I can’t help but feel that this is a price we pay, as a society that hides it away. I’m not saying we should all adopt the Jeremy Kyle soap opera confessional as cure, but we have to go some of the way to addressing our desensitization.  I know that at times people will and have thought of me as someone self-pitying or weak. And I tend not to do any more than be honest. All those times I have felt I should lie when someone says are you ok? I try not to do that any more, for sanity’s sake.