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First Person Narratives III

Following on from two recent pieces on first person narratives, we are extremely grateful to the author of Through the Wasteland, Jackie Hopson, who has written us an account of her experiences at Bethlem's Charles Hood Unit, entitled One Good Year: Being an in-patient in the Charles Hood Unit, Bethlem Royal Hospital, 1974 -1975, to be posted in two parts. She writes:

Winning a place in the Charles Hood Unit at Bethlem Hospital in 1974 was harder than getting into university and felt to me like a greater achievement. There were two long and demanding interviews, each time with a roomful of doctors, nurses and social workers. After the first interview, they sent me away with what seemed an insuperable task: to finish university, get a job and survive for a few months. I sat down on the platform at King’s Cross Station and cried. Some months and the second interview later, I was given a place.

Bethlem was very different from the county asylums where I had earlier spent many months. I felt safe and settled at Bethlem: in other psychiatric hospitals I had felt punished, a prisoner, alert for possibilities of escape, fearful of ever-worsening, harsh, physical treatment and drugged into stupor. Our time-table at the Charles Hood Unit was demanding but, with a small, supportive group of patients and a very informal, non-hierarchical atmosphere (all staff and patients were known by their first names), life was pleasant and felt pretty normal. Some eight or so patients lived in a “hostel”, a large, comfortable house called “Winchelsea”, which was, I believe, the former Hospital Governor’s residence.* We were all roughly between 20 and 35 years old and, almost without exception, well-educated, though some members had dropped out of higher education because of illness. Every morning, we walked across the field to the Charles Hood Unit, where most of our activities (it didn’t feel like treatment) took place in a huge, light, high, wood-ceilinged room, comfortably furnished and with an adjoining kitchen. We had lunch provided here by the hospital; breakfast and supper we made for ourselves at the hostel from an in-patient stipend of £4 per week. This meant we had to shop in the local area and cook, together or individually. We did our own cleaning and laundry in the house – and had to deal with the tensions that arose among the “tenants”. We were given no psychotropic medication whatsoever.

As members of this therapeutic community, we had a full, five-day timetable, which ran from 0915 to 1600, except for Fridays, when we finished at 1400. Many patients then went away for the weekend to friends or family. Three times each week we sat on the floor in a circle in a small room for a ninety-minute group therapy session which was tape-recorded. Normally a registrar and a senior nurse were present with the patients, sometimes two nurses; and these staff members might interject personal material, as well as helping us along with frequently very painful issues. In addition, there were two one-hour hostel group meetings each week to deal with domestic problems, again with staff present: the small group of patients was together pretty much round the clock, so there were difficulties sometimes. Each of us then had a 45-minute session of individual psychotherapy every week.

*Actually the former residence of the Hospital Steward