The Big Picture: Why was I in there?

A little over a decade ago, I suffered a breakdown (whatever that means) and became a patient at a psychiatric day hospital. I spent the 18 months that followed, sitting in a common room with my fellow patients, smoking.

Looking back, it’s hard to see just how we got through so much time. It’s true that there were occasional groups, although these were often cancelled, and once a week we would spend an hour in a one-to-one session with our “care co-ordinator”. I never worked out what these sessions were supposed to entail. They weren’t intended as “therapy” or “counselling” but all requests to be told what the sessions were for would be met with the Kafkaesque response “That’s for you to tell me.” For the rest of the time from 9.30am till 4pm, five days a week, we sat in the common room, smoking.

I was a new kid on the block, barely a fledgling in day-patient terms there were plenty of patients who’d been there for 10 years and more. My health deteriorated rapidly, to the point where I was sectioned and put on the wards. I begged for my place at the day hospital to be held open for my return. I couldn’t imagine how I’d survive without it. When, six months later, I was finally discharged, it felt like the end of the world.

Looking back, this interests me. Why was it that I was so desperate to stay in a place that not only was failing to help, but was actually making things worse? The answer, I believe, lies in the very human need to belong to something. When I became ill, I became extremely isolated. I stopped working, lost touch with my family and friends and spent my days pacing the streets.

Moreover, a major factor in my breakdown was my sense of not belonging, of somehow not being able to find a space to exist in the world. The day hospital offered me such a space, a label, a place to belong. The only requirement, I must remain ill this seemed a price worth paying.

At the day hospital, we never discussed the future. But if mental health services want people to get better, it’s vital to help them to build a life beyond the common room, a bridge to the world outside.

Clare Allan’s debut novel Poppy Shakespeare, inspired by her experience of being a psychiatric patient, has been longlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the BT Mind Book of the Year Award, 2007.

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