Welcome to the cupboard of broken toys — part 2

I think it is true that the armed forces get a pretty bad rap when the matters of care and welfare come up. In my experience, this is a grossly unfair assessment. Also, some people can have a pretty twisted idea of what psychiatric hospitals might be about. I found that the Military Hospital in Woolwich was a place of safety and a caring environment for me when I was most in need.

The nursing staff were kind and supportive, as were the doctors, in their own peculiar way. The very worst thing that happened during my various stays in Ward 9 was that they would not let me get away with taking refuge in my emotional black-hole. Also, in the gentlest way possible, I was encouraged to confront myself and strip away the layers of lies and bullshit that I had been using as my own personal armour.

There are four separate things when you are suffering mental illness:

1. You. There is your personal image of yourself and how you fit in with things around you. You might say, how you rate your self-worth. When I am really down I am a 2. When I am happy I could be as much as a 20!

2. Your illness. If you had the inclination to do so, you could try to figure out the nature of what you are suffering and then look it up in a book to try and understand what you might expect. This is probably a good idea but it takes a well-trained expert to understand all the issues.

3. How you relate to your illness. Some people actually like being mentally ill as it gives them a certain life-credibility. Others, myself included, look on it as an imposition of stressful periods. You when you can kick back and let it all go but that amounts to personal negligence. It can be quite distressing when you go through it. During this, you have the capacity to be a right pain in the arse.

4. How other people relate to your illness. There is a great stigma attached to mental illness and very often, people outside will regard you with suspicion and trepidation, as if you are a bomb ready to go off. Either that, or they think there is some kind of nurturing they have to do and try to swamp you in unwanted affection.

Part of the process of recovery is coming to terms with those issues. It is not easy.

For quite a number of weeks after I had been admitted to Ward 9 I was not entirely on top of things. I had lost weight and I had also lost a lot of strength and the medication probably contributed to me losing the will to do anything. My appetite was suppressed and my capacity for concentration was very depressed. My keyworker, Corporal Tim Johnson, Mental Health Nurse, RAMC, decided I needed to start engaging with the routine of the ward. This included going down to the gym after breakfast for games of volleyball. In my zombified state I must have been like something out of the Night of the Living Dead. But the other patients were patient with me. As I say, being on Ward 9 was probably one of the gentlest place I have been for as long as I could remember.

After the gym session, most of the other patients boarded a bus to go to the Occupational Health Centre. This was an old Victorian building on the other side of the Common. Neither I nor my fellow zombies went there to start off with. The staff wanted us to stay on the ward where they could keep an eye on us.

Captain Hardy interviewed me twice a week. I think he wanted me to start taking responsibility for my own recovery but he also wanted to get to the bottom of what was causing my depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in much of a state to respond in those days.

In the event, it was over a month before I started coming out of the fug. When it happened it was quite sudden. One morning, I was woken by one of the other patients bringing me a cup of tea. I thanked him politely and he almost dropped the cup in surprise. I got dressed and went out onto the ward to find something to read. The Staff Nurse looked surprised as well when I said “Good morning.”

The bookshelf was underwhelming. There were about a hundred Mills & Boons a shoddy selection of novels about WWII and some airport lounge spy novels. I did manage to find a Lawrence Durrell, I think it was Bitter Lemons, but the last 20 pages were missing. This was disappointing.

Tim Johnson came out of the ward rounds meeting and raised his eyebrows.

“I see you’ve decided to join us at last,” He said.

I smiled.

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