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Inside ‘Ferguson House’

Essay | 13 minute read
After a long history of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Helen Taylor was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in 2003 with a life-threatening depression precipitated by the miscarriage of an IVF pregnancy. This first admission lasted fourteen months. What follows is part of that story

A bloke in skinny black trousers and a baggy t-shirt ushered us in. His hair hung in curls over his eyes. In a thin voice he introduced himself as Ewan. He left us in a side room with beige vinyl chairs where we sat studying the cracked grey linoleum. A few moments later, he reappeared with weak tea in polystyrene cups.

‘Toast?’ he asked.

‘Er, no thanks,’ Mark said.

‘Your room will be ready soon,’ he promised.

Mark held my hand as we waited in silence.

‘I’m not staying here,’ I said eventually.

‘Helen, we’ve been through this…’

‘I’m not staying.’

‘You have a choice,’ the social worker told me when she arrived on the ward. ‘You can stay here of your own free will, or we will section you.’

‘That’s not a fucking choice,’ I said.

I waited until she’d gone before I told the nurse in charge that I was leaving.

‘You can’t,’ she said.

‘You can’t fucking stop me,’ I said.

‘Yes, I can,’ she said. As she was happy to elucidate, under Section 25 (2) of the Mental Health Act (Scotland), she had the right to detain me for up to two hours until a doctor could see me to take it further. Which she did. It was my first taste of what it meant to have my freedom taken from me. It was a sour taste of disbelief and rage, and it was a taste I would come to know well.

When the room was ready, Mark was sent home. Ewan took me through to see it, hovering at the door while I looked around. There was a bed with a thin worn quilt, a bedside cabinet made of cheap wood laminate and a small sink with a mirror above it. Behind a sliding door in the corner was a toilet. It had not been cleaned.

I looked in the mirror and tried smiling. Red-rimmed eyes with black circles stared back at me.

I sat on the edge of the bed and the walls closed around me.

Two days later I finally crawled out of my room and went to watch the TV in the sitting room. The room was almost full with patients who all seemed to know one another. I sat down on an empty chair. There was a collective gasp.

‘Aargh, you bitch, get off my pal,’ a lad said, his eyes flashing as he lunged for me. Ewan leapt from his arm chair and pulled him off me. I found out later he was called Davy.

‘Nutter,’ I mumbled. The others sniggered and went back to watching Bargain Hunt. I hauled myself up and dragged myself back to my room. I could hear Davy arguing over the empty seat.

Ewan followed me and parked himself on the chair outside my room. I slammed the door shut and sat on the bed. He pushed the door open.

‘You know the rules,’ he said gently.

But that was the thing. I had no idea about the rules.

At the ward round the following day, Dr Lorimer asked me how I was.

‘Fine,’ I said. He laughed.

‘That’s the thing about Helen,’ he said to his registrar, Priti. ‘She’s always fine.’

Priti suited her name with her sleek black hair and delicate features. In keeping with the latest fashion, she wore her stethoscope slung casually around her neck. Her brown woollen trousers were slightly too big for her and the sleeves of her fine knit sweater were always tugged down over her hands. Her ingenuous appearance belied her forensic eye. I would never succeed in getting one past her.

‘When can I go home?’ I asked.

‘I don’t think we are even considering that yet,’ Dr Lorimer replied. His hair fluffed up in panic.

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ I said. ‘I am perfectly fucking fine.’ I wasn’t the one wearing an ill-fitting tweed jacket with elbow patches, and diarrhoea-coloured jumbo cords.

‘I don’t think so, Helen,’ he said.

Photo by Daan Stevens/Unsplash

I met Ronnie, my first named nurse, at the ward round. He was supposed to be the one with overall care of me. In appearance he resembled an overinflated school kid, something his tight chinos and pale blue polo shirt two sizes too small for him did little to dispel.

After the ward round was finished, he barged into my room with a crocodile smirk across his face.

‘Your solicitor is coming tomorrow,’ he said in a weedy nasal voice.

‘What solicitor?’

‘For your court case next week.’

‘What court case?’

He didn’t bother to explain.

We were supposed to have one-to-one sessions where I told him what I was feeling. It was meant to help, to give me some kind of release.

‘Ronnie, I think you are a prick,’ I told him.

‘I don’t give a fuck what you think,’ he told me in reply.

It turned out I was a good judge of character. Several months later he got one of his patients pregnant — a pretty girl with auburn hair and scarred arms. Fucked her in the staff toilets, I was told. I hear they are still together.

Within a few days of being on the ward I lost what remained of my appetite. Meal times were a torment. All I ate was soup the colour of insipid pond water with bloated lumps of barley floating in it. The other food was worse. Grey boiled potatoes served with chunks of gristle in slimy gravy. Vegetables so over-cooked they had lost all identifying features. Sickly sponge pudding and custard that smelt of bad eggs. I lost weight and considered myself super-model thin.

At the queue for dinner one evening Ewan asked me how I was doing.

‘Don’t ask them that, sonny’ said Les, another nursing assistant. He had a scar down his face and a booming sergeant major’s voice. ‘If you ask them that, they’ll think you give a shit.’

The court hearing was the following week.

The courthouse had a magnificent marble foyer that echoed with the footsteps of solicitors, but the courtroom was nothing more than a seminar room with several rows of plastic chairs and no windows. The sheriff listened to Dr Lorimer’s testimony.

‘Do you have anything to add, Dr Taylor?’ he asked. I shrugged my shoulders. The proceedings were a joke as far as I was concerned and, but for the chance of a day out, I would have refused all part in the rigmarole. The sheriff made his ruling under Part V Section 18 of the Mental Health Act (Scotland) and I was formally detained for six months, subject to renewal, as laid out in Section 30 of the aforesaid Act.

We left the courtroom with a nurse on either side of me. As we stood outside in the drizzle waiting for a taxi, I watched the treacly water of the Clyde flowing past and wondered how cold it would be.

Months passed. I spent hours staring out the window of my room – a window that was reinforced glass and that wouldn’t open more than a couple of centimetres – plugged in to my CD player or my radio, listening to the music of British Sea Power and Johnny Cash, or John Peel’s soothing voice. I watched scurrying commuters take a shortcut past the wards to the train station at the end of the road, and the dog walkers wandering freely on the grassy slopes of the old hospital grounds. The old Victorian asylum was shut down now, the windows boarded up and the walls vandalised. I’d been taught there as a medical student. There was talk that it was to be converted to luxury flats. I wondered who would buy one.

My meetings with Dr Lorimer bristled with mutual exasperation.

‘It isn’t healthy, keeping me locked up,’ I said. ‘I need fresh air.’

‘We can’t risk it at this stage, I’m afraid.’

He tried every kind of anti-depressant and more on me.

‘You do know, don’t you,’ I said, ‘that just because I want to kill myself it doesn’t make me a fucking nutter.’

‘That kind of language isn’t helpful, Helen.’

I wrote. Pages and pages of unreadable torment in a hard-backed journal that a friend had given me a year earlier to chart my pregnancy and the birth of the child that didn’t come. And I read. Eliot, Thackeray, Tolstoy. Different worlds, different times.

Christmas arrived and I was still confined to the ward under constant observation. 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.

For light relief, Lorraine, my next named nurse, told me stories of the more unusual ways patients had tried to kill themselves. A man had tried to poison himself by eating roses. He’d sustained thorn-related injuries but nothing life-threatening. One woman, she said, had tried to cut her wrists with a Quaver. We came to the conclusion, as did the woman, that corn snacks were not the most effective way of ending one’s life.

Lorraine was Dr Lorimer’s eyes and ears on the ward. She was plump with cropped brown hair and a round face. Her short-sleeved tunic showed off her chubby arms, and her polyester trousers had an elasticated waist to allow for her ample belly. In size and shape, and in the way that she cared for me, she represented everything I felt a mother figure should. Though she spent most of her working day sitting outside my room reading gossip magazines, almost nothing escaped her. She spotted the wounds in my marriage and tried to bandage them.

‘Mark had no choice but to bring you back on Christmas day,’ she said. ‘You know that, right?’ I didn’t have the words to answer. ‘And he had no alternative but to agree to your section.’

At forty, Lorraine was only four years older than me but she had married as a teenager and was the mother of two grown-up girls. She had always lived in Glasgow but somehow she seemed more worldly than me.

When she had read all she could about Gwyneth Paltrow’s wedding or Britney Spears’ bikini body, she’d come into my room and bitch about the other patients and staff, sometimes even managing to prise a half-hearted laugh from me.

She started on Phyllis.

‘She was lucky she wasn’t sacked, you know. This time last year.’

Phyllis was our activity nurse. Together with scar-faced Les, she was an avid disciple of the Atkins diet. On the days when Les was guarding my door, Phyllis would stop by to compare their daily egg and bacon input.

‘You can eat as much as you like, you know,’ she told me as if I was interested. ‘So long as it is protein.’

She boasted that she had lost several stones in weight but, from what I could tell, it had come entirely off her top half. She had the biggest backside I’d ever seen. The step of her hips seemed expressly designed for infants to perch on. During the week, she ran relaxation classes that none of the patients attended. She’d waddle round the ward in her yoga outfit trying to persuade us to participate, to bring our pillows and go into the sitting room where the lights were dimmed and the TV turned off for once, to listen to whale song and pan pipes. I always refused. It wasn’t the escape I was looking for.

‘She decided to decorate the ward for Christmas,’ Lorraine said. ‘God knows what she was thinking.’ Ferguson House had a grand name but it was little more than a temporary cabin with high security doors and windows, bad plumbing and peeling paintwork. It could have done with being spruced up.

‘Oh right,’ I said.

‘She put up streamers, and tinsel,’ she said, ‘and then decided to light candles in the corridor.’ Lorraine paused. ‘Candles in this place. Can you believe it? With all these arsonists and nutters.’

That day I recognised Phyllis as someone who didn’t know the rules either.

When Lorraine wasn’t around, I had Jackie as my named nurse. One day when I was feeling particularly low she praised Mark.

‘You’ve got a good man there, Helen,’ she said.

‘I know,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ she added, ‘any other man would have left you.’

One afternoon there was a commotion.

‘Get your filthy pig’s hands off me, you fucker.’

It was Sadie being frog-marched back to the ward by a couple of policemen, her tiny frame dwarfed by the two men. As she swore, she spat out strands of her platinum hair that had strayed into her mouth. Her denim jacket was plastered in mud, her t-shirt ripped at the shoulder exposing her black lacy bra, and her tights laddered. A round of applause broke out among the patients. Sadie had absconded from the hospital for a night and had apparently got shit-faced on cheap vodka and smack that she’d bought with money she’d earned turning tricks on the ward. She took a bow. She was a returning heroine. She was my heroine.

Photo by Freestocks.og/Unsplash

For several months I tried to follow Sadie’s example and make my escape, attempting to squeeze through the open door as the dinner trolley came in, or following the cleaners as they slipped out the side door. I was watched all the time. I never made it.

‘I’m considering IPCU,’ Dr Lorimer said eventually. IPCU was the intensive psychiatric care unit. I’d heard about it. It was the place for the irredeemably mad and the criminally insane.

‘Please, no,’ I said, fear gripping the back of my neck.

‘Last chance. Let’s up the diazepam to 10 mg three times a day.’

If nothing else, it meant that I could hold my own with the patients’ conversation in the TV room on the few occasions that I ventured back there.

‘Ten milligrams doesnae touch me these days,’ someone would say.

‘Me neither,’ I’d say, and they would look at me in astonishment.

‘You speak,’ they’d say.

By six months my hair had grown thin and straggly below my shoulders. Ailsa, an alcoholic in for rehab, was a hairdresser, and set herself up in business on the ward, cutting, blow-drying, curling and straightening for customers who sat on the chair beside her bed. The ward tasted of styling mousse and hair lacquer. She shaped my hair into an orderly bob at odds with my appearance. I admired her steady hands. Mine shook constantly – I could barely write or hold a coffee cup. My writing had changed from a flowing italic to a scrawl that looked as if it had been written by a spider on caffeine.

My weight dropped to six and a half stone. Dr Lorimer confronted me with the alternatives.

‘We can either carry on as we are, which doesn’t seem to be helping, or we can think about ECT.’

‘Fuck off, there’s nothing fucking wrong with me,’ I said.

I had six lots of ECT and lost my short-term memory.

Photo by Callie Gibson/Unsplash

There was a delicious feeling of losing consciousness as I fought the anaesthetic. Each time I tried to keep my eyes open and fixed on the operating light which blurred in and out of focus above me. And each time I gave in to the drugs and slipped into another world. And when I awoke, I barely knew my own name. It was the first real escape that I had managed.

I saw Davy, the lad who had attacked me, before he left the ward. His eyes no longer flashed with visions he couldn’t control. Instead they were glassy and co-operative. He shook my hand.

‘I hope you get home soon, doll,’ he said.

Helen Taylor’s first novel, ‘The Backstreets of Purgatory’, is published by Unbound. Buy here.

All names have been changed.

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