The psychiatric patient, if you were ever blessed with the opportunity to meet her, is interesting—not your average person. In our state of normality, where we are told that there is nothing beyond objective reality, she is the one who might tell you: “There is more to this reality, and I saw the proof.” If you are an inquisitive type of person, you will ask for more details, you will start a long talk, like I do every time I am in presence of a psychiatric patient. I love them and I like them—a more interesting bunch of people is difficult to find.
It is inside the premises of a psychiatric hospital that the most interesting characters spend their days at one point of their lives or another. It isn’t their fault, but the fault of the society that looks at unusual human experiences through the lens of psychiatric institutions. What is done to the patients inside the premises is another story (read my other article on Mad in America here), but here I want to introduce you to the people inside, to the ones who spend their stay without any power, having no choice but to leave their fate in the hands of a treating psychiatrist. But what is being treated and who are these people?
Let’s meet some of them properly.
There was Steve, a very kind guy who would share his meal with me in a psychiatric hospital back in Sheffield. Every night he would order a takeaway and invite me to join him at the table. He had a good taste in food, working in his ‘normal’ reality as a chef. Steve was originally German, and ended up in Sheffield due to love. The love didn’t work out eventually, but he decided to stay.
Steve won often cooking competitions and I remember catching myself thinking: but what is he doing in the hospital? He also couldn’t answer that question, but he shared with me his diagnosis—“schizophrenia.” He also told me that mostly he likes his voices, they remind him that there is more to this world than what we see. I would watch him listening to nice music and walking in the garden and catch myself thinking: but what is wrong with him? Why is here? I could never answer this question. Steve became a good friend.
There was Cleopatra. It wasn’t her real name but she asked us to call her so, and I think she did it because she might have been Cleopatra in her previous life. Who knows? As with me, she was put on various meds to try their effects during her stay, and they didn’t work. Side effects were terrible, until they found something that had less visible side effects, and she was discharged eventually.
No one listened to her story, apart from me. She was abused as a child by her uncle, but “doctors” were only interested in her “delusions,” Cleopatra and such, while I was interested in her as a friend. She was funny and kind, and I would give her some of my beauty products (I collect such stuff), and she would give me some magazines to read. We didn’t have time to exchange numbers.
I wish I could find them all, the patients whom I met, but they discharge them without warning, and you are left feeling as if you lost a dear friend. They don’t tell you when someone is leaving. It’s like a procession of numbers for them, behind which one can catch an occasional name, and a story. Narratives do matter, and yet, in the notes of a psychiatrist you will usually find a lengthy description of symptoms instead of description of people. She hears voices, they say. He has delusions. She is mad. You won’t find in there a story of one’s life, a story that matters.
People do matter; they all have a story to tell.
Then there was “Snake.” She introduced herself as “Snake” to everyone, until I finally got her real name out of her: Janita. Janita was like a terrified animal, with the stigma of a personality disorder attached to her. She would sit on her own, and not engage with anyone. She did engage with me, though, because I genuinely liked her. She listened to nice music and had good books on her shelf.
They put us in the same room and that’s how I learned more about her. She said they judged her as a loss to society, as a lost case, and I remember thinking: but how can anyone give up on a person, ever? I also remember how I was sitting in front of her, and we had the usual game of eyes we played with Janita occasionally, just for fun, and a member of staff came and sat next to me, and after Janita stood up and left, he told me:
“My god, I thought she would jump at you and hurt you.” I was lost for words for a couple of minutes, until it dawned on me: they judged Janita all the time.
“No,” I had to explain to him. “It’s a game we play. Janita would never hurt me or anyone else.” I was distressed for the rest of the day, really distressed. Janita gave me her Italian jacket as a present, and I bought her some books and a face cream. We laughed at night. She was fun. But she was constantly judged, with terrible stigma attached to her back.
There was also Anna, who spoke Russian to me. I remember watching her crying over a piece of paper, which was her discharge plan, and having a really unpleasant feeling. She was so joyful and happy while in the hospital but, as in my case, doctors were saying that it was wrong, that the feeling of euphoria was an illness, to be treated and smashed.
Anna would share with me the wonders of small luxury discoveries in the middle of the hell of the psychiatric hospital. She would use her leave to buy a cappuccino in the canteen downstairs and visit charity shops nearby when a staff member would get a moment to take her for a walk. I got my first “leave” only after a week of being there, and went straight to the charity shops and to buy myself a cappuccino, on the advice of Anna, who would laugh with me when we had our cigarette breaks.
As I had, she had encountered magic in her “psychosis” and we would share our experiences. They put her on lithium among other stuff, the discharge list was long, and Anna was sitting in the living room of hospital, with her head leaning over the piece of paper as if she was in deep pain. They had broken something in her.
The next time I met her, in a café, she was a different person: distant, disinterested, detached, looking miserable. She helped me, though, because when I saw her crying over her discharge plan, I promised myself not to succumb to the same fate. I would choose my own “treatment” plan, I told myself then. I would need to research it all by myself, but they wouldn’t break me like they did with Anna.
Anna, but also Steve, Cleopatra, Janita, and myself, we were just the numbers in the procession of patients which came to the hospital back in Sheffield, or to any other psychiatric hospital in the West. We never mattered as individuals. Our symptoms were discussed and analysed, but no one had ever asked: “But what happened to you?’’
No one really came to us, sat down and just listened. No one was bothered to really see how we felt. On many occasions we were just a nuisance, taking the time the nurses spent on administrative tasks. We were a burden to the doctor, who had something like twenty minutes for each patient, no more than twice a week. We were annihilated as individuals, we were “diagnoses.” I heard once a nurse commenting: “Here comes Ekaterina, she has a bipolar disorder,” as if it would describe me as a person, which it didn’t.
I didn’t recognise myself in the system. I looked at myself each morning in the mirror and I would repeat to myself: “I am Ekaterina, I was born in Russia, I speak four languages, I love books, interesting people, unusual places, cats.” I think Janita saw me doing it, because I caught her doing the same. Or maybe she was already doing it, all along. She stood in front of the mirror one morning when she thought I had left the room and tentatively said: “I am Janita, known as Snake. I am not sure what I like, but I want to know. I am not a bad person. I am not. I am Janita. I hate it when people think I am a snake.”
I hope that Janita found a better place, a more welcoming environment, where no one would say to her she has a personality disorder. Who can have a chance with such a diagnosis, I am asking you? Who could ever think to inflict such a thing on a person? But I have the same question about the “bipolar disorder” in which I don’t see myself.
It is not me; I am more than that. I have a Phd earned in the United Kingdom, I lived in four different countries and five various cities, I love life, I have amazing friends around the world, I like an occasional glass of red wine and coffee in the morning. I love nature and walking, I hate shopping. I love cooking and deep philosophical discussions. I like reading and writing. I like interesting people who see beyond the syndrome of normality that hides the inability to think beyond the ordinary, to recognise the indifference and decadence of our modern times.
I am not just a patient. I am not. I am more than that. I matter. And Steve, Cleopatra, Janita, Anna and many others matter too. They are real people behind the mask of a psychiatric diagnosis.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.