If you can’t be crazy here, then where?
The first time I arrived at Woodside, it was 1999, mid-summer and I was 15 years old. Woodside was an adolescent psychiatric hospital and I was being admitted as a patient. The hospital was across acres of land, an old Victorian asylum with luscious towering trees, derelict buildings, secret gardens and courtyards and the odd facility still in use, like Woodside, an elderly psych and a lock up for criminal psychiatric patients. It was other worldly, away from everything, well not everything. The hospital was next to Chessington World of Adventures and every so often when the wind caught the sound just right, you could hear people screaming as they rode the roller-coasters, whilst having the time of their lives, it was ironic and very unnerving in such a spooky setting.
When I stepped out of the car the feeling of dread hit me. This was it! I was being abandoned here, without knowing what to expect and so far from that place which was supposed to feel like home, a safe space; maybe this was the safest place for me. The adults I had seen recently seemed concerned that I was a danger to myself.
I stepped into the reception area and noticed a girl sat there. She had very fine curly blond hair tied in a pony tail with loose curls frizzing around her head like a golden halo, her body was painfully thin, and she didn’t seem to be safe with herself either as she too had visible scars. She sat there tearing up a piece of paper, with pieces floating to the ground like sad confetti, I wondered how long she had been here, why was this sad girl so sad. Before she was escorted into a room she gave me the most dejected smile I had ever seen.
I was called into a room, it looked like the interview room I had been in a couple of weeks before, when the police took my statement. Inside there was a large two way mirror a video recorder and a man sat in a chair writing some notes. Sitting down nervously in front of the man I noticed he was probably in his late 50s, with more hair growing from his eyebrows, ears and nose than his head. With no smile or warmth, he said:
“Why do you think you are here Charlotte?”
This question was difficult for me to answer because in answering it I would have to say certain things out loud which were too hard to face, so I simply replied:
“I don’t know”
The man looked at me with one eyebrow raised and omitted a faint exhale of exasperation, I felt the floor fall out from under me, I felt worthless and realised that here, wherever this place is, I wouldn’t be understood either.
“I am Dr Sevett and I am the head psychiatrist here, at Woodside. Please make sure you use your time here wisely Charlotte” he said abruptly.
I had been at Woodside for just under a week, most of the other inpatients were either shy, un-welcoming or needy. I was introduced to a patient called Natalie, a chubby girl with frizzy brown hair, pulled back into an untidy top knot. Natalie was smiley and seemed to be more adjusted than most. She offered me a cigarette, I was excited that we could smoke and jumped at the opportunity. Natalie led me into the grounds at the back of our building, which consisted of an open manicured lawn with a clustered corner of old oak trees. Natalie sat us down in the centre, which felt odd as I was more an outskirts kind of girl, but this seemed natural to her and her confidence comforted me. As we both inhaled our first puffs of nicotine and poison, Natalie leant into me and said:
‘so, do you want the low down on whose who in here then?’
I nodded silently.
‘that girl over there is Louise, she’s an ED girl and you don’t want to get on her bad side’
Natalie said this with dramatic eyes to further her point.
‘ED girl?’ I asked
‘ED. Meaning eating disorder’
Natalie said with a tone that suggested I should have already known this. I didn’t have the guts to tell her that I was also an “ED” girl. Looking over at Louise I could tell that she was withholding food, although some could still be fooled due to the amount of clothes she was wearing.
‘Who is that next to her’ I asked, as I recognised her as the girl from reception with the sad confetti.
‘That’s Chrissy, she’s also an ED girl’
Lucy and Chrissy sat there under the trees as if they were perfectly placed china dolls, however, I felt the glare of Louise’s stair as she sussed me out.
‘Over there is Cane, annoying, but harmless, he has the mental age of a 10-year-old even though he is 16, so that’s why he acts the way he does, you’ll see.’
Cane was a tall and heavy set, about 6ft – he only wore tracksuits in garish colours. His mannerisms were erratic, and his voice boomed throughout the grounds.
‘That guy over there is Alex, he’s 18. He shouldn’t be here, they will be moving him to an adult facility. He has schizophrenia, so he can be very intense.’ Natalie said this with a cautious tone.
Alex stood in a door way of an abandoned building next to woodside, he looked like a Victorian gentleman, he had vampire like skin, almost translucent. His eyes were wolf like, a silvery grey which were brought out by his jet-black hair. He was tall, and his body was slender like a ballet dancer, you could see his muscle definition – he was strong.
“Over there is Jenny, she is weird but the sweetest – she doesn’t speak to anyone, so don’t be offended.’ Natalie smiled as she described Jenny.
Jenny was sat on a bench and appeared to be drawing in a notebook, she had dark sleek shoulder length hair, her skin was Mediterranean looking. Jenny had bare feet and her toes were painted a sparkly purple which twinkled as she wriggled them in the sunshine.
‘why are you here?’ I asked Natalie with hesitation
‘I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I self-harm a lot – but not as much as I did, you?’ Natalie pulled at her sleeves as she said this.
‘Something happened to me, an incident. I was ill before but this, what happened, it broke me and now I want to die – so they put me here.’
A few days later, I entered the day room and saw the nurses un-stacking chairs and placing them in a circle, it wasn’t for our daily group therapy. as we had already done this, as we had done every morning at 9am, so this confused me. We were asked to all take a seat.
“Hello everyone, we are calling today’s emergency group for Jenny, because Jenny refuses to go to School”, a nurse said in her best patronising tone.
This confused me further; school? We were in hospital, why would she have to go to school?
“Jenny, why don’t you want to go to school today?” the nurse asked
Jenny was sat on her chair with her knees up under her chin, her arms were folded in front of her face resting on her knees, with only her exceptionally large doe eyes peering through her hair and over her arms. Jenny didn’t reply.
Nurses, Doctors and some of the patients started to discuss Jenny as if she weren’t in the room. Jenny appeared to be getting smaller and smaller and I could feel the anger inside me get bigger and bigger, before I had time to think words just burst out from my mouth:
“Why does Jenny have to go to school, why are you making her feel bad for being ill, when being ill is why we are all here, leave her alone”.
I felt exposed, I had revealed myself. The doctors were looking at me with disbelief, the nurses looked disapprovingly, but the patients seemed elated. I looked over to Jenny and she was transfixed on me, like a puppy.
Later that day whilst in my room I decided to crack open my prison like window as the humid air felt constricting, but the window was stuck. I began to rattle the window angrily, but before I could lose my cool I saw these beautifully delicate long fingers appear and with complete ease lift the window open. It was Jenny, she stood there in my room like a beautiful ghost. Natalie had told me that Jenny didn’t speak to anyone. Which is why when Jenny Said:
“Thank you, Charlotte”.
I was both startled and honoured.
Jenny and I sat on my bed that afternoon and talked for hours, we chatted like old friends, we could have been “normal” teenagers if someone had just heard us, without knowing our situation and new address. The hazy feeling had left in those moments, I was me, in my mind and my body. With Jenny I was no longer a spectator of these strange events, I was here, and I was with Jenny.
Waking up in my new permanent state, terrified; not knowing where I was, what had happened and why. As my eyes ripped open, ready to escape what they had seen, my heart relocated to my throat, my blood rushing to my legs in preparation – detachment was settling in, nothing was real, including myself. The sun forced itself onto me through my window, not allowing me a second to pretend that that everything I knew was wrong and nothing would be the same again. The sunshine seemed to mock me with its warmth and promise of growth and better days. The birds and their song were not delightful, but instead loud and domineering. The noise of rustling leaves grated on my nerves like finger nails on a chalk board. The truth would slap me in the face and pin me to the bed, I was here, Woodside; I was labelled crazy and damaged, left and abandoned.
There was a knock at my door and before I could even utter a sound a chipper voice said:
‘Charlotte are you awake?’
I unfortunately knew that I was, so just shouted:
The door flung open, it was nurse Carry – skipping in with a beaming smile. With a look which matched her personality, wild curly hair, a sun tan which suggested she took long holidays in exotic destinations, or possibly she had just fallen into a vat of orange paint. Her clothes were bright, and she wore as much sparkle as possible, she spoke with a high pitched chirpy voice, however the thing I noticed first was her kind eyes.
At Woodside Carry was my firm favourite, her bubbly, approachable nature was exactly what I needed. A sugar-coated human, which I had little experience with in my 15 years.
‘Charlotte, the nurses need to speak to you, can you come to the office as soon as you are dressed’
I sat up slowly like the living dead, nodding at Carry and then placed my head in my hands as the world was already too intrusive.
‘don’t worry it’s just a chat’ Carry said softly.
But, I was worried; the other nurses, therapists and doctors, the “professionals” were fascists, they were stereotypical of who you would imagine working in a Victorian asylum. I walked to the nurse’s office which was a glass enclosure inside the day room, so that the staff could keep a close eye on us, the patients; or at least to reprimand us – not necessarily to keep us safe. It was an obvious divider between us and them, “them” being the ones who think they are sane and us who are deemed feral loons. Although, if they had been through what we all had, what I had; would they still be on the other side of the glass? Never had the expression, “people in glass houses, shouldn’t throw stones” rung so true to me.
I knocked on the door and a very stern, yet attractive woman answers, it’s nurse Isabelle. As she opens the door the smell of her musky perfume hits the back of my throat, leaving the taste of floral alcohol on my tongue. The sound of normality from the conversations of the other nurses pass through my ears, reminding me of life before.
‘Charlotte come in’ Nurse Isabelle says with distain.
I sit on a swivel chair and feel the unsteadiness jolt me back into reality. Nurse Isabelle looks me up and down with her mouth grimacing, as if I were some smelly mongrel she found in the gutter and was now responsible for. She made me feel dirty, a feeling, along with shame – had become residents in my self-belief.
‘We wanted to have a word with you, with regards to your appearance. We feel that you are dressed too provocatively and that it is becoming a nuisance for the male nurses and doctors and distracts them. Also, you are inviting unwanted attention from the male patients’.
As Nurse Isabelle finished her onslaught of misogynistic bile, I knew then, at 15 that my gender “the weaker sex” would be forever complicit in how boys and men used me, regardless of facts, consent or my age. The clothes in question were regular clothes that most teenage girls wore in the nineties. An off the shoulder, strappy top, jeans – hardly X-rated material.
I continued to sit there, as nurse Isabelle told me how to improve upon myself, exerting her privilege and condescending me with every word that left her lips, I sunk further into my dissociation. As I felt myself float above my body I could see Jenny sat in the corner, staring at me with her big eyes, full of concern for me. Focusing on Jenny’s gaze I allowed the dishonour to wash over me.
Over the next month Jenny and I became inseparable, we had our own inside jokes, we wrote notes to each other everyday to read before bed. Jenny wrote weird and wonderful short stories for me, about the characters who spoke to her, that none of us could see. Her sense of humour was bizarre to say the least, however, I loved it. Sometimes Jenny would find dead insects and would make them the tiniest envelopes to delicately put them in and would give them to me as gifts. She called me her baby beasty or sometimes Sharon, drawing pictures for me of strange vampire like creatures which always had the same eyes. We washed each other’s hair, we took turns to lay on top of one another to feel the comfort and weight of another person, we were everything that we needed.
One day after creative writing therapy Jenny and I sat on the steps outside the reception area. It was another ironic sunny day at the funny farm, the smell of cut grass, the light of mid-summer and the sound of life beyond the grounds. The care free laughter and excitable screams of those at the amusement park adjacent. Whilst I sipped a can of coke and Jenny ate a melted chocolate bar, exasperated I turned to Jenny and said:
‘God, I’m bored, aren’t you?’
Jenny looked at me and nodded and then, in a funny posh voice said:
‘This place is driving me crazy.’
We both looked at each other and couldn’t stop giggling.
‘Let’s see how far we can go.’ Jenny whispered.
‘Where’ I said with a baffled expression on my face
‘Over there’ Jenny pointed to a field beyond woodside and the lock up ward. I had no idea what was beyond that point.
Once we got there we realised it was a corn field, it glistened in the sun like a sea of gold, as the wind moved through the corn it created waves. We had already gone further than we were allowed. Jenny found a small hole in the wired fence which we both managed to squeeze through. We were both badly dressed for the occasion, Jenny was barefoot, and I was wearing a long bohemian skirt, I had to pull the skirt up to around my waist, so I could walk through the field without getting caught by the stems of corn. The field seemed never ending, it dipped into a valley, and at the bottom was an imposing oak tree. When we reached the tree, it was even bigger than we had predicted, it engulfed the light. We collapsed in a heap among the roots, which looked like octopus arms, the earth was cool and peppered with acorn shells. Jenny and I stayed there until the sun set and felt as if we were free from our pasts, our illnesses and them – the ones who wanted to keep us here.
Once we walked back from the corn field and approached the entrance to woodside, I could see Nurse Isabelle waiting at the door with a face that brought on the feelings of being a little girl who was about to be scolded in front of her friends. Nurse Isabelle grabbed Jenny from beside me, as if I were a monster. She began to rub Jenny’s arms as if she was a small child who had just got out of the bath.
‘How could you do this to Jenny?’ Nurse Isabelle screeched.
I felt the need to die, the need to end the pain from being the “bad child” or the “crazy girl” who puts others in danger. I have never looked fragile, as a tall girl with broad shoulders certain assumptions are made. I have always been described as strong, confident, resilient and mature. None of which I have ever felt to be me, so, it was easy for people to scapegoat me when compared to someone outwardly fragile.
‘Do what, what did I do?’ I screamed franticly.
I knew Jenny couldn’t defend me or speak up, this made me look guilty. Nurse Isabelle took Jenny inside, leaving the door to hit me in the face.
A week later I was in my room listening to Tori Amos on my CD player, whilst writing in my feelings journal – something my psychiatrist had me doing. As I doodled a heart with knives piercing through it, bloodied and damaged; the door opened, and Alex was stood in my doorway in his dressing gown. He had no expression on his face, he looked robotic, lifeless. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and in turn I stood up and went to close my door – before I could even take a step forward, Alex started to undress. Walking toward me, he opened his gown and revealed his naked body and erect penis to me, it was as if he had pulled out a knife and I knew I would die. Alex grabbed me and pushed his weapon into my groin, disbelief became detachment. How could this be happening again I thought to myself, a “safe place” the doctors said; was this my fault – I was the common denominator. Before Alex had a chance to go any further a male nurse walked past and saw what was happening, the nurse calmly walked over to Alex without even acknowledging me and escorted Alex back to his room. No one ever brought up this incident again, however, later that week locks were fitted on our doors.
My body didn’t feel as if it belonged to me anymore, it was a shameful vessel of trauma, the reason I was here in this strange place, was because I was damaged goods and left behind to be abused further, a level of hell I did not know existed, until then. Ans little did I know that the levels of hell could get deeper and darker.
Several weeks later whilst sitting in the day room, I was staring out of the window, watching the season change. Cain walked over to me and started telling me sexually explicit jokes, he was childlike, which made me feel I could get rid of his advances easily. I stood up and went to walk away, Cain grabbed me and pushed me to the floor, his weight seemed to expel all the air from my lungs. Whilst giggling like a little boy Cain began to undress me – the room started to spin, and my body went limp, flashbacks filled my mind, confusing past and present.
Cain was pulled off me, he had me pinned to the floor and was about to rape me. But, was it my fault. Was this because of me, the questions repeated in my head.
It had been 3 months since I arrived at Woodside and autumn had arrived. In a state of denial and rebellion, my behaviour changed. I became reckless, no longer listening to the “adults”, I began allowing myself to be used by male and female patients, whilst manipulating the vulnerable ones myself, getting them to smuggle razor blades and diet pills from the outside to me. This was now survival. Jenny was my only reason for living, which the doctors took a dislike to, trying to separate us at every opportunity.
One Friday afternoon Jenny and I sat outside the main door to Woodside, watching the doctors leaving for the weekend in the “real world”, back to live amongst the “sane” people. We noticed Dr Sevett, or as we liked to call him “Dr Death”, was walking toward us.
‘Oh God, what does he want?’ Jenny muttered from under her cardigan which she had covering her nose and mouth.
‘Charlotte, we need to see you’ Dr Sevett called over.
Jenny grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly and said:
‘Remember they don’t know us, we know us’
I smiled at her and squeezed her hand back.
I walked into Dr Sevett’s office and sat down in front of his grandiose desk, Dr Sevett looked down at me over his glasses and said:
‘Now, Charlotte, we have a problem. We feel you are too disruptive to other patients here at Woodside’
I could feel the rejection before it even left his mouth.
‘We are going to terminate your time here, after next week’ he said in a condescending tone.
I started to tap my foot repeatedly, anger rushed through me.
‘why exactly’ I asked through gritted teeth.
‘Well, you cause problems for other patients’ he winced as he said this.
Alex and Cain came to mind, as well as the doctors who complained about being distracted by my “provocative clothes”, and how they thought I was bad for Jenny.
‘I’m ill too, you know’ I said whilst fighting angry tears.
‘maybe too ill’ Dr Sevett said.
My entire existence felt as if it hung in the balance, Dr Death was sentencing me to a life as the “crazy, hysterical girl”. I wasn’t being asked to leave I was graduating from this bedlam with a higher chance of stigma and prejudice and a high possibility of suicide. It was clear to me then, I was not allowed to be the victim, I was only allowed to be the problem.
As I got up and went to leave I turned to Dr Sevett and said:
‘If you can’t be crazy here, then where?’.
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