I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital last night.
Admittedly, the admission was part of the performance; an immersive theatre production based at Whitchurch hospital before its closure next month.
The persons in front of me shuffled forward and matron checked them in: “one epileptic and one suicidal, is it?” My turn: “are you dangerous?” How apt. Not dangerous. Just Danger.
I’d thought, mistakenly, that all residents would have been transferred on by now, but no: as we waited in the foyer, a smartly dressed doctor glided by, followed by scrubs-donning support staff, having finished their work for the day. Wings of the hospital were still in operation, and we visited just one of the disused ward. It felt disrespectful in ways: here were actors portraying the most dramatic stereotypes of mental illness, while within the same building lived the residents they were mimicking. But those performing each had a personal connection to the hospital and mental illness; this wasn’t entertainment, this was experience.
There were several powerful moments for me. I’ll share a couple.
The confessionals: I would enter a cubicle, a bedroom on a ward, and listen to an audio reel of an interview with a Whitchurch staff member:
“I used to be really afraid when someone said they wanted to kill themselves. I didn’t know what to do. But I learned not to be afraid of it, and now it doesn’t phase me. I just see, okay, you’re in this really bad place. How can I help you?”
The most beautiful moment for me was an art installation by artist Gail, a former patient, in what used to be her bedroom. Leaves, ivy, growing, spreading, from the corner through the room, and little summer houses made of letters written and received during her stay.
My good friend Julia, who was a key part of the project, particularly in the research and development phase, contextualised the art for me.
In an earlier stage of the project, as Julia talked with Gail while walking through the grounds, she discovered Gail hadn’t known during her stay that there were many summer houses; she only ever knew of the one she could see from her bedroom window. As Julia reflected, “at that time, she desperately needed to limit the world around her.”
Feeling the crunch of the leaves underfoot, I moved towards the window of the room that was once Gail’s. In the blackness of the night I saw just my reflection staring back at me. My moment of seeing; my moment of leaving.