Sitting in the back of my kitchen cupboard lurks a cup, one that I haven’t used for a number of years now but still I can’t throw it away. This cup symbolises so much for me, it’s made of melamine, a heavy type of plastic and it is practically unbreakable, it’s decorated with pretty flowers and it would happily form part of a good picnic hamper. Yet this cup has never been used on any picnic, instead it was used behind a multitude of locked doors.
This was the cup I used during my time in forensic psychiatric care, in the secure unit were for over a year I was confined. It was specifically chosen by my children as it adhered to the strict regulations about the type of non breakable cup I was allowed. The regulations about such items were very strict and if your cup didn’t conform you simply wouldn’t be allowed to keep it. On finding it the other day I thought of my time in that place and how dehumanising the whole experience was, you see it’s hard to suddenly be labelled as too unwell or perceived as too dangerous to use normal everyday objects like a china cup.
The reality of course I now know was that I was sent there because I was depressed and self harming, but the scale and level of my harming was not in anyway as extreme as some of those I met in these places. Yes I cut myself on an almost daily basis in the hope of making the internal pain I was enduring somehow physical or more visible in some way. It was my way of protecting me, because at the time I truly believed that if I didn’t harm myself others would and this way I could control the harm done to me. I did bang my head on occasions purely out of frustration at the way in which no one seemed to understand the horror of flashbacks, of memories and of how I felt. But in all my time of harming I have never used a cup, or a knife, or a fork or any number of other items that suddenly I wasn’t allowed in this place to self injure. Nor had I ever harmed another human being, so I wasn’t dangerous in any way, yet in secure forensic services everyone is labelled and treated the same.
I look at that plastic cup and I remember how the so called professionals treated us, how they made me feel so worthless, so pathetic and so very wrong. I left an open unlocked ward and in the time it took to drive 200 miles I was viewed as a whole different person. No longer a free citizen who just happened to be ill, but a forensic detainee who could be barked orders at, denied her possessions and forced to do things whether I wanted to or not.
The forensic unit didn’t treat me as if I was ill, I never felt like a patient who was regarded an equal, no I suddenly felt like a third class citizen who they regarded as bad. In truth I feel they saw all of the women in there as criminals, yes I know many of the women I lived with in that place had criminal histories that had resulted in them being sent there, but not me. Yet these people couldn’t treat us all as individuals we were collectively dealt with in punitive ways.
Like the cup made of unbreakable plastic, I can recall the lukewarm drinks we were served, and the mealtime chaos of cutlery counts and at times being made to eat meat and vegetables with a spoon. I was thinking back the other day to my first meal in this place and being lined up in a queue to collect my food, spaced out from the person in front with staff all around. When they handed a plastic plate, a spoon and a serving of meat, vegetables and potatoes, I was perplexed. Only that morning as I left my open ward I had sat with a china bowl and had open access to knives, forks and spoons and yet now I sat on a long bench table, surrounded by staff and other patients holding a spoon thinking how do I eat with this? I remember saying I needed a knife and fork, and being told that I wasn’t allowed such items and to shut up, sit still and eat. Yes the staff really were that blunt. My drinks in those early days came in polystyrene cups and I was told I wasn’t allowed a plastic cup until I had approval from the team.
The Team became a familiar part of my life, they ran my life for me after all they were in control, in charge and me well I was just a nobody. I soon learnt that if you challenged them over anything it didn’t get well received, but try as I might I couldn’t not challenge some of the more ridiculous rules and procedures this institution operated. They’d count the cutlery every single meal time first it was counted out then back in at the end, if they mis-counted then we would all be made to wait and wait and wait, while they hunted for the missing object which in truth there never was. Of course I never once saw anyone harm with cutlery, but pens that were freely available were used by many to self injure, as were a plethora of other objects we had access to. I learnt a million and one more ways to self harm, I learnt the weak spots in the system and I witnessed many awful incidents in there too.
It soon became clear that you could tell when certain women were more anxious and you could certainly sense who was going to harm before they did. Yet it surprised me over and over again to find the staff didn’t sense this increased anxiety and risk within a person, the team over focused on physical security and so missed clear opportunities to help women. Physical security included stupid rules about cutlery and certain other object and it also included an over reliance on locks. It focused on staff dominance and patient compliance to rigid rules that made no sense and yet the system failed.
A forensic unit has a higher level of self harm incidents and serious incidents endangering life than other types of psychiatric facility. It’s not just about the clientele they serve it’s about the complex nature of people who need help, and yet are failed by the system. It would have been so easy for me to have got sucked into the cycle of punitive rules, punishments and de-humanising that took place, it would have driven me to self harm even more if I had let it. I had to fight not to succumb to this place, to not end up like many who had spent years existing in these units. Who no longer felt human or had any worth, they felt better off harming and dead than existing in this horror in which they lived. Many didn’t have visitors or leave and they were rarely empowered, encouraged or given opportunities to believe they had a future.
I was fortunate, I had a family outside, I had children who cared and friends who stayed in touch, most of all I had years of experience surviving similar controlling environments. My abusive childhood was all about control, punitive random punishments and dehumanisation, dissociating allowed me to survive that time. Dissociating again allowed me to survive this period of my life too and parts of me would ensure I never spiralled into being a continuous long stay forensic patient.
The truth is I can’t throw away that cup now because it will forever be a permanent reminder of the fact we survived the horror of our time in forensic care.
copyright DID Dispatches 2015