During my time as an inpatient I spent 3 Christmases in hospital, so this year I will be glad to be at home with my family, though I will still spend a part of my Christmas day calling someone who I know will be in hospital over the holiday period.
Each of the 3 Christmases were different, my first was in a local hospital where I was able to still see my children on Christmas day, I can remember the staff that day included the ward manager who was willing to work the holidays alongside her colleagues. All the staff on duty were happy and friendly, every one of the small group of patients who hadn’t been discharged were given a small gift from the hospital. I can recall thinking that at least it showed they cared and the whole ward atmosphere was jovial and quite relaxed, the nurses didn’t hibernate in the office as was usual practice but instead sat in the lounge with the patients. The ward was decorated for Christmas and there were tins of sweets for people to share, It wasn’t an easy time but they did the best they could to make it bearable and it was reflected by the calmness of the ward that day.
On Boxing day it snowed quite heavily and this meant my visitors couldn’t get to the hospital as was planned for a few days, this could have been a really difficult time for us but the staff reacted well. Whilst my visitors couldn’t get to me, I was still able to go for a walk with nursing staff , enjoying the snow and the cold crisp winter air. Just being able to off load how upset I was at not seeing them, how much I was hurting inside, made it somehow more bearable especially as I was able to do this not in the confines of a ward but in the fresh air as we strolled in the grounds. That Christmas wasn’t the easiest but it was far from the hardest.
My second Christmas a few years later was very different, it was the hardest by far, the staff didn’t want to be at work, It didn’t really feel like Christmas and the ward wasn’t decorated or anything. The only way you knew it was Christmas day was the simple fact that some of the other patients who had become accustomed to Christmas away from home, were excited and loud as they shared gifts with one another. I had arrived less than 2 weeks earlier, so I was still getting used to the new environment and the restrictions of a secure unit. I was still on high level observations and really felt like I didn’t want to celebrate, what was there to celebrate my family were hundreds of miles away. We only managed a brief chat on the phone with them and even then we had no privacy the phone was located in a loud communal room. I just wanted the earth to swallow me whole, to sleep and not wake up, anything for the nightmare to end. No one had outdoor access that day, not even in the courtyard which basically resembled a patch of triangular-shaped concrete surrounded on all three sides by the 2 storey high walls. The food was basic and plain, Christmas lunch without any of the trimmings and tea well It was just cold sandwiches served early by the kitchen staff; who left to go home, and left to go hard on the ward until tea time. This wasn’t even bearable and I actually believe degrading treatment of people with a mental illness, I think many prisoners probably had a better Christmas that year than the women including me, in that privately run medium secure unit.
My third was different again, this time I was in a locked rehabilitation unit run more like a medium secure one with sanctions, and control systems to ensure patients complied and had no voice. It was probably like that because the staffing, management and organisation responsible were the same people as at the secure unit I had been at previously. I spent the run up to Christmas in the unit, we had decorations and even cake, though none of the patients were allowed to buy other patients a gift. perhaps not such a bad idea from a management point of view. But many of these women didn’t have a family sending in gifts and so this restriction meant many had little if anything to open on the day.
It was still business as usual right up until the last-minute. So all the regimes that operated on a day-to-day basis were still in place including the daily meetings and coercion tactics that were used as a matter of cause. I had just been made informal, but I couldn’t leave without their consent and they had to let me out of the airlock door just to go for a walk. It was as if I was sectioned except the legal name had changed, it was coercion at its very worst and yes I hated it. But I had to comply if I wanted to get home for Christmas, you see I had managed to persuade the unit with lots of pressure from home to be granted time out of the unit.
I had to travel by 2 trains, 2 taxis and finally a 30 minute journey by car just to get home. It took me hours and yet it was worth every minute because I was able to visit my family for Christmas day, I can’t recall exactly how long I was given leave for just it wasn’t long enough and I seemed no sooner to have got home and I was leaving again to go back. But I did eat Christmas lunch with my family, and I was able to open presents with them around me simple things that most of us take for granted.
I can recall going back down south to the unit, feeling sick inside so desperate not to go but so aware that despite being ‘informal’ I had no choice, if I hadn’t returned they would have detained me and I would have lost far more. My departure was as hard on my family as it was on me, but I recall once back the unit was in chaos, staff were grumpy at working and there wasn’t any festive spirit there at all. I asked others what their Christmas day had been like and the cook had made an effort and they had a good meal, but there wasn’t much festive fun. I felt I couldn’t answer when they asked what home had been like, for I didn’t want to feel like I was gloating, I wasn’t but I knew that if I had been in their shoes my tales of home would have felt like that.
Christmases since this time have all been at home thankfully, and I cherish each one for the simple fact of being with the people I love and who love me. Every year since I call someone I met from those dark days who is still stuck in the system of psychiatric care and has spent nearly 12 Christmases in hospital. I always send gifts in advance and try to visit either just before or after the holiday period, but on the day itself I call just to let them know someone is thinking of them at Christmas time.
That is why tomorrow I will be giving a few hours of my time over to support a scheme run by my church, they distribute hundreds of gifts to people in hospital over Christmas, distributing them around the wards on Christmas Eve. Now this hospital doesn’t house mental health patients, but serves those in need of physical care at this time. The idea that a simple gift from a stranger can make such a difference may seem strange in our very commercialised and materialistic world, but having been in hospital over the holiday period I understand why these gifts mean so much.
It isn’t about the contents of the gift itself it is the simple fact that someone is showing they care, these random acts of kindness speak volumes to people in need. I can appreciate the impact such a gift can have on a patient and that is why I will be distributing gifts this Christmas eve alongside many other volunteers. The hope is to bring some joy into peoples lives and to let them know they are not alone, but that others care.
Christmas is all about joy really, it always has been right from the very first Christmas and so its apt to think my actions may bring joy to someone today.
If you know someone in hospital this Christmas why not give them a call or a visit, it might not seem like a lot to you, but it will mean so much more to them.
If you find yourself in hospital for whatever reason this Christmas I truly hope that you find some true joy at this time, and that someone somewhere shows you a random act of kindness however small, to show you that you are not alone and that others care. It isn’t easy being in hospital at any time, but its even harder at Christmas, I will be thinking of everyone who is in hospital at this time.
Happy holidays and a very Merry Christmas to everyone, may you all know the Joy of that first Christmas at this time.