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First Person Narratives IV

The remainder of Jackie Hopson's account, One Good Year: Being an in-patient in the Charles Hood Unit, Bethlem Royal Hospital, 1974 -1975 follows (to read part one, click here):

Something new for me, after the long, inactive days in county asylums, was occupational therapy, of which there were four sessions each week, one of them being entitled, “Social Skills”. I particularly remember the well-equipped pottery workshop (I still have a dish I made at Bethlem by my bedside, 35 years later). There were two gruelling but productive afternoon sessions on Wednesdays and Thursdays: these were Psychodrama (role-play, improvisation, reading dramatic texts and dance), led by the inspirational Miriam Plummer, and Art Therapy. On Fridays, there was a large meeting of all patients and staff (medical, OT and social work) together in the big room. We who were patients were involved in decision-making. On one evening each week, one or two patients would collaborate to cook an evening meal for all patients and those staff who could come, which often included the consultant psychiatrist. All of this was very different from the “them and us” set-up of the county asylums, where the staff members were, on the whole, more like prison wardens, who most certainly didn’t fraternise with patients or relate to us in any way that wasn’t disciplinary.

Because we lived in a hostel, slightly apart from the main hospital, I didn’t feel like an in-patient. We went out to the supermarket, the pub (sometimes meeting escapee alcoholics from another Bethlem ward) and to the shops in Croydon. Friends visited us in the hostel, sometimes staying overnight (though I never discovered the official policy on guests, if indeed there was one.) All of this normality within our hospital experience made the transition to post-discharge life outside much easier. We were in charge of much of our own lives, within the safe and tolerant setting of the hospital.

I remember several noteworthy events, some terrifying and others positively joyful. The freedom and lack of hierarchy could be scary. After one of us being permanently thrown out of the unit for violent behaviour, the rest of us, alone in the big room, smashed the entire supply of dinner plates against a brick wall. This was both liberating and very frightening: the nurses left us alone in the ward. We felt both powerful and scarily uncontained. Another, more positive, day saw the whole group of eight patients (no staff!) setting off to London to celebrate the 21st birthday of one of our number. We went to a great restaurant in Greek Street and had enormous fun on the way home, encouraging everyone on the tube train to sing, “Smile, though your heart is breaking.” (Not many passengers joined in – they clearly thought we were bonkers!) We were high on normal life and it was wonderful.

Sometimes we behaved like unruly children. One day in the pottery workshop, the OT potter having left briefly, we had fun throwing lumps of clay at each other and the ceiling. The OT leader returned to shout, “It’s bloody bedlam in here!” which, of course, increased the hilarity.

I am aware that we were a very privileged group, specially selected and given a most unusual opportunity to receive a rather experimental form of treatment. My overwhelming memory is that we were considered as human beings with futures that we might realise, rather than psychiatric dregs to be confined, drugged and, at all costs, to be kept away from the “healthy” population outside. The Charles Hood Unit at Bethlem set me off on a path to believing it might be possible to live. When I left (I discharged myself, having become impatient with my life being on hold), I felt I was leaving a safe home, better able to cope in the outside world.