love lay down beside me and we wept

By Helen Murray Taylor

A rare and lyrical memoir about the author's time in a psychiatric ward and her road to recovery

Chapter 30

Christmas arrived and I was still under constant observation and frequently confined to the ward. Dr Lorimer decided he would allow me out for four hours on Christmas day. Mark came to collect me. I changed out of my ripped jeans and faded sweatshirt into a red dress that hung like a sack on me. At home, I watched the clock and cried into my M&S turkey breast with cranberry sauce. When the time was up, Mark took me back to the ward.

On Boxing day, I absconded.

For once the staff outnumbered the patients. Ferguson House was empty bar those poor souls with nowhere to go and the couple of us that they wouldn’t let out. On Christmas evening, there had been a party in the television room but I hadn’t gone. I had nothing to celebrate. That evening, lying on my bed staring at the ceiling, I imagined Phyllis the activity nurse in the TV room that she had decorated with tinsel and fake presents, hoping to persuade the others to pull crackers or join her as she sang carols, while they watched bemused from the armchairs, too polite or too drugged to protest, drinking supermarket cola or fake Irn Bru and waiting for her to get on with it so they could turn the television back on.

I had been traumatised by the visit home. The familiarity and the strangeness of the house where I was meant to live had unsettled me completely. It was disconcerting to go to the bathroom unobserved, to use hand-wash scented of pink grapefruit rather than disinfectant, to dry my hands on a towel that wasn’t sand-paper rough and imbued with the smell of the hospital laundry. It was unsettling to be alone with my husband, to cuddle the cat and bury my face in her fur, and feel the pin pricks of love wakening my emotions. The pressure of the ward had meant shutting down, numbness as a means to endure. Home lifted by inches that load, forced feeling to flow through my veins. I couldn’t deal with its intensity nor the excruciating rebound pain.

Back on the ward, I tried to oust thoughts of home from my mind by cramming it with junk. I played game after game of minesweeper on an ancient computer in an unoccupied side room which was occasionally used for private meetings or therapy sessions. It was a graveyard of obsolete equipment, broken furniture and unread files. There were faulty printers, chairs with screws loose, outdated educational pamphlets unread and bleached by age. Later, I’d have the odd therapy session there. It meant perching on a wobbly chair or hauling in an armchair from the corridor. Sessions were overheard and discussed by the occupants of the smoking-room next door. All your secrets and fears were fair game.

Late Boxing Day evening, when there was no space left for thought, I went back to my room where Scar-Faced Les was slouching on an arm-chair outside. I was considering going to bed when I heard the doorbell.

‘Food,’ Les said gleefully and went off to collect the delivery. He returned laden with bags of carryout curry which he immediately secreted into the staffroom. One by one the night staff joined him. The window of the staffroom gave on to the open workspace directly outside my roomand I watched their silhouettes — turned orange by the synthetic curtains — stooping over dishes and spooning curry on to plates. Shadow marionettes.

Puppeteers turned puppets. Opportunity clashed with confusion. There was no one on guard. Without my puppet masters, I was unstrung by nerves. I closed my door quietly and sat on the bed to collect myself.

For three months I’d been under constant observations day and night. Without my guards I felt oddly exposed.

I did a test run to the front door. At the last minute, I veered into the television room to disguise my motives should there be an unremarked spy at large but there was no one. Billy and a man I didn’t know passed me on their way out of the room. I sat down for a minute, head-spinning, forgetting in my confusion to first check the sofa for the outpourings of Billy’s incontinent bladder.

That’s when it clicked. Billy and his mate had gone outside for a cigarette. Straight outside. Without waiting for the door to be unlocked. Les had messed up. He hadn’t locked it after the delivery. Nonchalantly — pulse rattling, breath clattering — I made my way back to my room. The staffroom door was still shut.

I put on my boots. Fastened the laces with thick, clumsy fingers. Took my Gortex rain jacket from the locker. It was waterproof but thin, meant for summer showers and autumn drizzle, little use against the winter cold. But it could fold in on itself, fit into its own pocket, easy enough to hide if I shoved it up my jumper.

Outside it was cold and drizzling. I crossed the road and hurried away from the ward, hugging the shelter of the overhanging trees and shaking the rain jacket free of its zipped pocket. I tugged it on. Enrobed in the black of it, I was swallowed by the dark. I walked quickly but my actions belied the blankness of my thoughts. I didn’t have a plan. Beyond getting away.

Once I was out of the hospital grounds, I headed up the main road. Sights I knew loomed like apparitions in the night rain: the school sports ground blurred by protective flood lights; the looming flats at Anniesland Cross, their balconies laden with blinking Santa sledges; the supermarket forecourt dead after the Christmas rush. Everything hazy and indistinct and rendered silent by the low cloud and the stress muffling my thoughts. I cut through the supermarket car park, down to the towpath beside the canal, and let it drag me where it wanted.

A while later I was shaken from my stupor by the toot of a train. Without realising, I had come as far as the station one stop from home. Between me and the train was a black ribbon of water that I’d hardly been aware of. Alert now, I scrambled over the footbridge spanning the canal. The train was pulling into the station, its headlights ploughing two furrows through the drizzle. The platform was deserted save a single passenger waiting to board. In the darkness, I watched the train draw to a standstill, the guard spring down from a rear carriage, a young lad hop off near the front. The weather was getting thicker, smothering the light from the open doors, extinguishing it before it could escape from the carriage. The boy took the cast iron steps of the railway bridge two at a time and disappeared into the night. The guard waited, shrouded by the rainfall. For a moment, we shared the deserted platform. She turned away and climbed into a carriage up front. As the beeps signalled the closing doors, I jumped into the carriage she had just left.

I had no ticket and no money. If the guard came looking for me, I was done for. Twitchy and hypervigilant, I stood at the door ready to dodge her rather than risk being cornered in a seat. Other passengers in the belly of the carriage were staring at me. It didn’t take much to imagine what they were seeing: wild eyes, straggly hair, clothes hanging off me, pale and shaky. I stopped myself from staring them down.

Minutes later, we were passing my house. From the carriage, I could see the lights in the living room window. Mark was probably watching TV. The shelter of the house, the warmth of the light, the promise of safety were luring me home. But if I did go home, Mark would be forced to take me back and, thereafter, we would resent each other for what I had made him do.

The train pulled into the station. Someone pushed past me to exit. Through the open doors I heard the guard calling goodnight to the driver. The rain was pelting hard. The guard hurried along the platform without giving me a second glance. The echoes of her footsteps were clipped short by the foul weather. Her shift was over. The doors beeped to close. I stepped back and took a seat. The train chugged on. Inertia and indecision had forced me onwards.

At the end of the line, I snuck off the train and dodged past the ticket booth and the exit. But there was no one collecting tickets. From the carpark, I took the underpass which dipped below the main road and resurfaced near a bridge over a rain-swollen stream. I paused for a moment on the bridge watching the water spill and gurgle beneath me. A fleeting thought bubbled below my consciousness, one that I hadn’t been aware of when I’d been trudging along the steady canal. 

I set off into the freezing rain unsure where I was headed. I pulled the flimsy hood out of the collar of my jacket and walked with purpose to convince myself that I had a plan. Alert and jumpy now, it was as if there was a short circuit in my brain. My thoughts were no longer dulled but they would not string themselves together. They looped past reason, the most superficial of them driving me on. The path trailed the edge of the river, along muddy tracks that backed on to vast gardens, tracked beside a children’s play park, and I trailed with it until I reached the edge of open parkland and the start of the West Highland Way. It seemed as good a route as any.

At the entrance to the parkland, a group of youths were blocking my path. ‘Merry Christmas,’ I mumbled. They glanced at me and scuttered out of my way. I put my head down and carried on into the darkness. Rain was lashing down, sticking the hood to my head, plastering my hair to my face. It was pouring off the Gortex below my waist, soaking my jeans around my bum and thighs. Water had begun to seep through my boots. The clatter of my chattering teeth could be heard above the storm.

Soon, the park opened on to moorland scattered with copses which offered intermittent respite from the rain. Somewhere nearby there were Second World War bunkers and gun placements which would provide shelter until the rain let up. But I didn’t come across them. The darkness and the weather had twisted paths I’d thought were straight.

After an hour, I was frozen, exhausted and lost. For the previous three months, I’d done nothing but sit in my room or lie in my bed. Today, I had walked miles. A horizontal wind was driving the rain between the seams of my jacket. My fingers were stark white in the darkness, bloodless from clutching the flaps of my hood to keep the water from trickling down my neck. There was nothing left for my body to keep itself warm. I had completely given in to the cold. My teeth had stopped chattering. I was no longer shivering. Steel rods of cold had set deep in my bones.

I traipsed on, close to collapse, wandering out of the open heath of the country park and on to a back road. The road skirted cultivated woodland where the pine trees stood in regiments, unperturbed by the driving rain, densely-packed enough for their spreading branches to cast a protective canopy over the forest floor. The trees were offering me shelter and peace. All I wanted to do was surrender to them, to curl up under their branches on that bed of dry needles, and sleep. And if I died of hypothermia during the night, so much the better.

There was a banking up to the low limestone wall that marked the boundary of the forest. It wasn’t high, maybe three or four foot, but the slope was steep and slippery. Pre-Ferguson House, I would have managed it in a stride or two. But Ferguson House had depleted me. I scrambled half-way. Slipped down. Picked myself up. Tried again. Slipped. I could hardly see because of driving rain and tears. And again I tried, and again, until my hands were scraped and bleeding, and my clothes as muddy and slippery as the banking.

The slope was insurmountable. I collapsed on to my knees in the road and let the rivulets of rain run alongside me. I dammed the water with my hand until it ran over my fingers. I was too weak and pitiful even to cry.

The rain lashed down. The wind howled. The short circuits in my brain were no longer firing. The circulation had all but stopped in my fingers. My feet felt like they had been steam-rollered. My face, an ice-block, glacial against my whipping hair.

Eventually, I dragged myself up and trudged on, past farm fields and scattered houses. At length, I came across a village I half knew. Without realising, I had looped around on myself. An unthinking defeat. My guts twisted. I thought I would vomit. The city stretched out below me in the distance, its sky a sickly globe of mustard gas. Police helicopters were scanning the vicious night, their searchlights slicing through the toxic glow of light pollution. I wondered who they were chasing.

By 2.30 a.m. I was outside my front door. The lights were still on in the living room but now their glow was ominous. I rang the doorbell. Mark opened the door. Behind him, one of our closest friends peered over his shoulder. They swept me in, helped me out of my wet clothes, ran me a hot bath. The heat stung my skin, fought and failed to penetrate below the surface, and left me red and scalded. Mark laid out dry clothes for me — the Gap trousers that I refused to wear — but then he found others and I pulled them, on resigned to my fate. When I was dressed, they hugged me tightly and let my tears soak into their shoulders. And then the police arrived.

Twenty minutes later, I was back on the ward.

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