Asylum: Tuesday 14th October 1975

engraving of the asylum 1818-p-14 in j todd a l ashworth the house -wakefield asylum

engraving of the asylum 1818-p-14 in J Todd and   A L Ashworth The House – Wakefield Asylum

Preface: In 1975 I left home and went to train as a psychiatric nurse. This series of stories will tell of my experiences of working with the 1500 or so people who lived in or visited the hospital.

3.27am:

Marcus lay in bed watching the moving shadows cast through a small curtain onto the wall and ceiling of his room. He couldn’t sleep despite the pills. He heard voices outside, too muffled to understand but the tone was secretive and guarded. He was still upset by the events earlier in the day but had since decided he didn’t want to talk about it or think about it ever again.

Marcus imagined what it would be like to be back home, in his own bed, living his own routine, less restricted and feeling safe. A large bang startled him. It was a door, inconsiderately shut.

The lights were dim but enough for Marcus to draw more soldiers and tanks in his note-book which he kept with him 24/7.

His bedroom door opened and a head popped in his room. “Are you OK Marcus, are you sleeping?” asked a female voice. Do you want another pill?”

Marcus sat up and tried to focus his eyes on the strange face. “No, I’m fine thanks, I’ve been sleeping, I’m tired,” he replied.

The door closed and Marcus’ eyes re-adjusted to the low light of the room. He saw a face on the wall, a kindly face of a man with a beard, it changed as the breeze moved the curtain but with a bit of concentration he was once again able to focus on the kindly face.

The bedroom was cool but comfortable. His bed was just a bit short for his six-foot frame but if he tucked his knees up and slept slightly diagonally, he had enough room and felt comfortable. The pillows were soft but a plastic cover on the inside made them crackle as his ear pressed into them. Marcus wondered if that was intentional?

The voices returned outside in the corridor. Marcus strained to hear what they were saying. He thought they’d said they were to report him but he couldn’t catch what for? One of the voices laughed and the other said “Shh.”

A dog was barking in the distance, cars sped past at too fast a speed and a blue flashing emergency light cast glorious patterns of the walls of Marcus’ room. Marcus enjoyed the spectacle.

The night stilled and Marcus drifted off into slumber, half awake and half asleep, a place where dreams and reality merge as the brain rests and readies itself to restore through sleep. Marcus imagined his brain was controlled, he didn’t know by who or what. He had a mission, to build an army in readiness for war. He called it The Marcus Army. Rows and rows of troops were meticulously drawn, tanks perfectly placed around the edges of each page of his notebook. “I need more soldiers” Marcus mumbled.

Marcus smelt flowers, probably hyacinth, the blue ones like his Grandma used to grow in a pot in the porch. He smiled and spent a few moments thinking about how he’d upset her the day she died and wondered if that was the reason she had died? In his mind he vowed never to be short again with old people, the hundredth time he’d made such a vow since.

The room door smashed open and knocked his chair causing coins to fall from his trouser pocket and scatter across the wooden floor. Four nurses rushed in his room, pinned him to the bed and began to pull down the quilt, turn him onto his side and expose his bottom.

“Marcus, Dr Davies wants you to have this injection, you haven’t been very well today and this will help” said a large woman silhouetted against the light from the corridor. The other three nurses continued to weigh him down, his arms trapped and his face pushed into the crackling pillow. Before he knew it a needle was stabbed into his buttock and it stung as the unknown liquid was pushed into his muscle and flesh.

“You know you shouldn’t do them drawings and shouting at old Mr King just because he looked at your notebook isn’t on, now get some sleep and think on what I’ve said,” came a distant and disappearing voice. The three nurses released him and one kindly pulled up the quilt to cover his shoulder. The door closed.

Marcus pulled up his pyjama bottoms and rubbed the injection site. The kindly man appeared again on the wall and Marcus smiled and said “thank you.” His senses dulled one by one and he planned his battle, heard distant voices and dreamed dreams he would never remember.

9.38am:

Joe walked around the dormitory dressed in a striped pyjama top, naked from the waist down and barefoot. His thin frame inexplicably bent forward like a character from a Lowry painting as he paced around and around mumbling obscenities and occasionally lashing out and swearing loudly. His thin limbs were stiff and his slight muscles and tight tendons showed beneath his pale skin. His lower arms and hands were stretched forward and were taught. His eyes were wide and staring and, white, bubbly saliva collected at the corners of his mouth.

Drying faeces was smeared on Joe’s thighs, his hands, nails and his wispy black and grey locks were also testament to his earlier incontinence.

The dormitory was empty as all the other patients had been washed and dressed and awaited breakfast in the dining room. Joe was agitated. Sylvia closed the doors so Joe couldn’t escape into the lounge.

“Come on now Joe, why don’t we get you cleaned up and dressed, I bet you’re ready for your breakfast aren’t you?” Said Sylvia in a caring and calm manner. Joe continued his patrol and mumbling. Paul, a student nurse entered the dormitory and Joe growled through gritted teeth.

Paul sorted out some clothes from Joe’s locker and placed them on the bed. “Why don’t we go to the bathroom Joe and get you tidied up, you’ll feel so much better after a nice bath?” enquired Paul.

Paul approached Joe slowly, smiled at him and reached out. Joe grabbed Paul’s wrists and squeezed. Paul continued smiling despite the faeces and attempted to calm Joe’s mood. “We could go to the bathroom and make you feel much better and then I think Sister Smith has put you some sausage and beans to one side for your breakfast. You like sausage and beans Joe don’t you?”

Joe’s wide eyes fixed onto Paul’s face and he growled once again through gritted teeth. His grip tightened but it wasn’t strong. Sylvia moved in with a dressing gown which she draped around Joe’s shoulders. She swept his dishevelled fringe back over his balding head and put her arm around him.

“Come on Joe, let’s see if we can sort you out,” said Sylvia.

Joe released his grip on Paul’s wrists and shook his hands and arms as if to express some frustration and angst. His eyes closed slightly and with Sylvia’s gentle and calming guidance they made their way to the bathroom.

The bathroom was clinical but warm. Paul ran a bath and added a sachet of Savlon, swishing it around with his hands to form suds. Sylvia slowly undressed Joe whilst talking to him and reassuring him along the way.

Knowing it was impossible to get Joe to climb into the bath, Paul and Sylvia sat him down on a stool and taking one arm and leg each, they lifted him as he sat, into the bath. Joe’s thin body remained stiff and immoveable until the warm water began to help his muscles relax and help his body loosen.

Sylvia washed Joe’s hair with jugs of warm water from the sink whilst Paul washed away the faeces from Joe’s frail frame.

Joe’s mood slowly changed and he calmed. His eyes became less startled and his body’s contortions smoothed.

Sylvia and Paul dried and dressed Joe in readiness for his late breakfast. Paul attempted to get Joe to brush his teeth but they remained tightly gripped together. Sylvia combed Joe’s thinning hair and told him how handsome he now looked.

“There we go Joe, all done and dusted, now you go off with Paul for your breakfast and I’ll get cleaned up in here,” said Sylvia.

Paul reached for Joe’s arm, Joe punched out, missing Paul and catching Sylvia in the lower back. Sylvia reeled with shock and discomfort, “Ah, that hurt Joe.” Joe was oblivious as to what he’d just done and was somewhere else in the depths of his thoughts.

Paul took Joe’s arm. “Are you OK Sylvia?” Paul enquired, “You ought to put that in the accident book.”

“No, I’ll be all right, it was more the shock than anything, Joe doesn’t mean it, it’s just the way he is, isn’t it Joe?” said Sylvia as she straightened Joe’s collar and stroked his cheek.

Joe savoured his sausage and beans. Sylvia and Paul took their break and went to the hospital canteen for breakfast.

 

9.42am:

Jean strode out along the tarmacadam driveway of the hospital. It was her daily walk, around the grounds, the same route she had walked for the past sixty or so years.

Her stocky, short body was enhanced by an over-sized grey coat that hung vertically, tent-like, from her large bosom. She walk as if she was on a mission, fast paced and rocking slightly from side to side, as she did.

Jean’s hair was greying, cut in an unsophisticated shoulder-length bob and looked lank. She had several long hairs protruding from her chin and thick bushy eyebrows that framed her dark, hollow eyes. She wore flat brown leather shoes that were loose and misshapen but comfortable. Her thick brown tights crumpled and twisted at her ankles.

Many people passed by “Good morning Jean.” “It’s cold today.” “Morning.” Don’t get lost.” Greetings coming from mainly domestic staff as they came and went from their breaks. Jean just looked down at the floor and replied the same to each. “It is morning.”

The grounds were extensive and besides the large Victorian psychiatric hospital, several new annex built over the years and some port a-cabin workshops, there was a very imposing Gothic style church, St Faith’s, built at the bottom of the playing fields reached only by a solitary path shaded by mature sycamore trees.

Jean made her way to the church daily.

No-one knows Jean’s real age or her full history but it was known that she had been born in the hospital in the early part of the century and had never left. Records were often incomplete, lost or inaccurate. Raised in the hospital, considered retarded and possibly diagnosed with schizophrenia, but that was many decades ago. Now, no-one questioned her presence or aimed to improve her lot. Jean was part of the fixtures and fittings.

As Jean walked her feet dragged a little and rhythmically scuffed on the different surfaces as she made her way towards the church. She walked around and around the outside of the imposing church, never looking up or sideways, just down at her well-trodden path. The gargoyles in the eves watching her every move, accompanied by the rooks perched up high on the spire.

No-one knows why Jean walks around the church but some say it is the only rectangular path in the grounds and it reminds her of the days when all she was allowed to walk were the rectangular paths of the airing courts of the locked wards from many years ago.

Jean completed her mission and made her way back through the avenue of sycamore trees. A squirrel went unnoticed as it leaped and darted from tree to tree.

Terry had just finished duty and was under the hood of his Land Rover tinkering with the engine as it wouldn’t start. Jean stood behind him, a little too close for comfort.

“Are you going on your holidays?” enquired Jean in a deep gruff voice.

“Oh hello Jean,” replied Terry, “You startled me then, no, just going home when I can get this thing started.”

“Oh, have a good holiday then,” replied Jean, “you want to get it to the garage.”

Terry smiled as he watched Jean stride into the distance and back the ward.

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