Today’s post is an extract from Teresa McLean’s wonderful (and now, regrettably, out-of-print) autobiographical memoir, Metal Jam.
In the late 1960’s, having been expelled from her convent school after a series of pranks that included planting a tree in a loo (it took two gardeners and two nuns to get it out) and culminated in the last-straw flourish of using a hosepipe to drench a teacher-nun, Teresa McLean sat her A-levels and her Oxford entrance exams from home, then embarked on a series of gap-year jobs.
This passage describes her experience of helping to look after long-stay patients in a mental-health institution.
‘I joined a voluntary work-camp and worked in a psychiatric hospital in Chester. There were about a dozen of us, all roughly student-age, from all over Europe. It was my first experience of communal living and the only one I have ever really enjoyed.
‘The staff resented us, coming on the wards full of enthusiasm but knowing nothing. They gave us the most revolting work to do, like cleaning the lavatories, and the six of us who worked on the same ward developed a strong sense of solidarity, doing everything we were told with intractable compliance. It was grim work. We were assigned to the long-term ward for male schizophrenics, most of whom had been there anything from twenty to fifty years and were institutionalised beyond all semblance of normality. When we had done our manual chores we were free to talk to the patients but mostly it was a lost cause. I had arrived with romantic ideas about madness being in part a kind of vision which saw things that the rest of us could not see, but I was quickly disillusioned.
‘Indiscriminate eating was a hallmark of the ward. The curtains were bitten off up to mouth level; some of the patients ate their own faeces. It was humbling to work there and learn how little use I was, but there were moments of satisfaction too, which made it all worth while.
‘One day I took an old man, Mr. Kennedy, out on to the the field behind the ward to play croquet, having a vague idea that hitting things through hoops might be good for schizophrenics because it would give them an aim. We were not allowed to take patients out on our own and one of the tough, cynical, gum-chewing male nurses came with me and leaned against the wall while Mr. Kennedy and I swiped at our croquet balls. Poor old Mr. Kennedy was totally withdrawn. He never said anything and held his head rammed down between his shoulders, chin on chest. I got cold after five minutes and asked him if he wanted to go back in. But he clung to his mallet and refused to move, though he had only hit the ball about twice out of a hundred tries. He went on trying and I went on retrieving the ball and putting it in front of him. It started drizzling. The male nurse lit another cigarette and hunched his shoulders. We carried on. All at once, Mr Kennedy hit the ball and it went through the hoop. I shall never forget it. He whimpered with pleasure all the way along the corridor back to the ward. I decided on the spot to come back to Chester during my first Oxford vacation.
‘I did come back, on my own, every Christmas vacation while I was at Oxford. But the first time I went back, I could not see Mr. Kennedy. When I asked about him the nurses did not know who I meant. Then I showed them the bed he used to sleep in and they said, “Oh him! He’s dead.”
‘I was shattered. I had been brought up with a Catholic attitude to death, contemplating it last thing at night, praying for the dead, and going to boozy parties after funerals. I had been taken to see my first dead body when I was eight: dear old Sister Carpa, one of the German kitchen sisters, lay on a table with a chaplet of flowers on her head and a rosary in her hands. She looked sweet, as she always did, but as dead as a waxwork; she would never open her eyes no matter how long I looked at them. It was too awful to take in. I have always found death too awful, and it was like that with Mr. Kennedy, though his life was what most people would call a waste. He was old, frail and miserable but despite all that his death was heartbreaking.’
Forty-five years on, have things changed much? True, the huge ‘asylums’ are gone, but there are still people spending years – even their whole lives – in equally unacceptable conditions. It would have suited Southern Health for Connor Sparrowhawk to be forgotten as quickly as Mr. Kennedy. People with intellectual disabilities or severe mental health problems are still pushed into wasted lives, viewed as a waste of time and resource and much more than occasionally treated as an outright waste of space. And it is still the caring ‘amateurs’ – the families, friends and volunteers – who are trying to leaven professional and official cynicism with genuine concern.
If things had really changed, we wouldn’t need #justiceforLB and the LBBill. But we still do – desperately – which says all you need to know about the extent of change. Please be part of the change, not the cynicism.