Its a quiet Thursday on the ward. Sectioned subsistence still possible even though London is suffering with the, ‘dust of death,’ as scare newspaper the Mirror has put it. Pollution levels over the capital are high and the world a little hazier than usual out of the window. The ward is unbearably hot, adding to the sedated, lethargic atmosphere. I am struggling to write this as I am currently fighting off an overpowering drowsiness that is a side effect of my medication. I do intend to write soon on the treatment of mental illness with Drugs, however the focus of this post I do not tend to be on my own experiences.
I have been so inspired by many of my fellow patients stories, in particular a good friend of mine who is also under section on the same ward. We have lived together for two months, and as institutionalization would have it- we have also become good friends. The strange way that humans are so adaptable often strikes me living in a place like this- though it is very unnatural and surreal being imprisoned for no crime in an overheated and claustrophobic area for hours and hours at a time, we still manage to create normality in the surreal. My friend and I often sit together eating toast and jam, drinking horrific instant coffee and analyzing the morning papers.
I chose to follow Hemmingway, and ‘write hard and clear about what hurts,’ in regard to my experience, however I understand the deeply private nature of living with a lifelong mental illness, so my friend chooses not to be named . A large part of this is owed to the huge stigma that still exists. There seems to be a theme of Paranoid Schizophrenia being connected to violence and scare stories. Court cases, horrible news stories of some psychopath we should be afraid of. If you put into Google search ‘paranoid schizophrenia,’ one of the common searches attached is, ‘murderers.’ My experience of living with many patients who suffer with this illness is not one of fear or intimidation, actually one that has seen me witness immense vulnerability amongst sufferers. It is them who are often suffering with fear, confusion and heartache.
Schizophrenia literally means ‘split mind,’ and my friend is a perfect example of this definition being appropriate. There is so definitively two sides to him that I almost cannot believe he is one person. When I met him he was so sedated he could hardly keep his eyes open, he shook my hand with both of his for a whole minute, introducing himself continuously and telling me that he was an emperor, a king, a memory of God, a Mafia boss who ‘owned Sicily.’ Another friend on the ward told me that he had offered to kill someone for him when he previously had been admitted, and had been moved downstairs to isolation after behaving violently toward the staff and other patients. I didn’t know how to behave toward him. His speech was mumbled and intelligible and he seemed half sedated and delusional, so I took to smiling politely and nodding.
Now he sits opposite me talking with incredible eloquence and dignity. As with many patients living on the mental health ward, if you catch them in moments of confidence the level of intelligent conversation is above much I experience on the outside world. In particular my friend, when he is well, seems to sometimes be able to express himself in such deep and articulate terms that I cannot believe what he tells me he has experienced has happened to him. This is the wisdom that comes from vibrations of deep pain, of hardship.
My friends story begins in a similar way to many of the people that I’ve met on the ward. A quiet clarification that Drugs have the capacity to play a disastrous catalytic role in mental illness. Growing up in the East London gutter and being vulnerable to peer pressure led him toward drug taking, the safety of protection, into gangs. ‘We were smoking weed, crack, heroin. I had never experienced any of my symptoms until I started smoking, weed especially.’ What he detailed to me of his experience with schizophrenia was far beyond what I had expected. I warn you I can only try to put into words aspects of the conversation, finding reason in the bizarre. The darkest stories of his experiences with schizophrenia left me feeling like I had not seen the world.
His symptoms started with what he refers to as his, ‘magical blessing.’ ‘My whole skin began vibrating with incredible energy, like sexual pleasure. I saw the road of life, a never ending road with trees on each side and I began to understand the rules of the universe.’ My friend talks about this experience entirely objectively. ‘The next two months I walked around London still with the magical blessing- I could look into peoples eyes and see their souls. I learnt about power, about love and about God.’ Most of his experiences, and indeed many of other schizophrenia patients I know, seem somehow religious and sexual. Being ‘magically blessed’ made him realize that he could access Gods mind and he says that amongst other things, he saw visions of the memory of genesis. I ask him if he was still taking drugs during these two months, he said no and he has never since his first symptom of illness.
After two months the ‘Magical blessing’ wore off and so he was hospitalized after being arrested for a petty crime. My friend was sent to the old mental hospital in Mile End, which most ex-patients and indeed anyone that knew of the place, speak of in terms of dread. St Clements is a ghostly old gothic building straddling a large patch of land between the main road and the cemetery. A large chimney of an incinerator stands out into the sky giving the place the feel of a death camp. Boarded up and empty, though proficiently creepy, St. Clements does not seem half as horrible now, abandoned, than as what I’ve heard of when it was still functioning as a hospital.
He was nineteen, the same age as me, when he was first hospitalized. He describes this experience as hell. ‘Do you mean it was like hell?’ I ask with some confusion, I don’t want to undermine him, or dig too hard. ‘No,’ he looks me dead in the eyes, with no joke or doubt, ‘it was hell.’ He looks dark as he recalls the horror of St. Clements, a hundred patients on the ward, beds separated by curtains. He describes an incredible scene, the smoking room, ‘One sofa and cigarette smoke so thick you couldn’t see the other wall… and ash all over the floor like snow from hundreds and hundreds of cigarettes. I walked in and knew for sure that I was in hell. Dundee ward was hell without the fire.’
One of the symptoms he suffers from the most in his schizophrenia is ‘flight of thoughts,’ which he describes in this way, ‘every ten seconds you have a different thought. I am the angel of death, I am an emperor and can see infinity, I’m part of a never ending war between two ancient Gods- The thoughts are not connected to reality, but they become real. You can’t prove the it is real but it is believed.’ He talks about each experience very frankly. The matter of fact tone he uses to discuss such bizarre sentiments threw me off a number of times.
In the 12 years since the first time he was sectioned the longest he has stayed out of hospital has been six months. My friend is one of the few patients to be treated using Clozapine, which is the last drug offered to schizophrenia sufferers who do not respond to any other treatment. Mental Health drugs are controversial at the best of times, but the struggles I still witness with him are disturbing. ‘I sleep 14 hours a day sometimes. The drugs are stealing my life. All they do is sedate me and that’s it. I have been treating myself for my symptoms, the drugs don’t do anything.’ He believes he is getting better through meditation and avoiding stress, similar to my own outlook.
‘They don’t understand my mind, I believe my mental capacity is beyond humanities understanding of what a brain is.’ He says with frank offhandedness. I stare into his wide eyes, and I know that the experiences he tells me of are not lies…yet it is not really truth either. Schizophrenia has no truth or untruth- he is right when he says it is beyond understanding. The usual ties of imagination are free to stretch into normal experience and warp the way the world is viewed. When he says to me that he has seen the creation of the universe through semantics, quietly over a cup of tea like we are talking about the weather – who am I to say he imagined it? As far as I know everything we perceive as reality could be imagined anyway, ‘life is a dream and we are the imagination of ourselves…’ as prophet Bill Hicks says. I understand that my friends boundaries of subjective and objective are frayed, he believes it was hell- so it was real hell. What he believes, sees, hears, imagines is not rationalized to create pragmatic reality . There is a deficit between what he knows is real and what is in his mind, and his reality like all of ours is created- but who is to say it is not equally as real? I know it is equally as felt.