Hello. My name is Sarah. A few days before Christmas last year, 2018, I found myself at City Airport wheeling two big bags to a stop in the middle of the departure lounge. I was meant to be flying that morning to Ibiza for some weeks of rest and restoration at a yoga meditation and rehabilitation centre. My heart was beating very fast and felt swollen and throbbing inside my chest and I felt breathless. Seeing me standing stranded and immobile, a kindly first aid nurse approached me and brought me some water and offered to escort me to a quiet room.
As we walked towards the first aid room we passed two police officers. I approached one of them and asked to speak with him in confidence so the officers followed me into the room. There I felt a sudden need to ‘confess all’, to hand myself over to the police. In my mind I felt sure that my phone was being bugged and that my ex husband was monitoring my calls and that the police were poised to arrest me at the security gates very soon. Better to hand myself over and confess all and beg them to take me to a cell. I had no clear sense of my crime, of what I had done wrong, only that they were definitely on my trail and about to swoop in.
The two officers were gentle and kind. They listened patiently to all my anxiety and confusion. After a few basic medical checks on my heart they explained gently that while they thought I definitely had done nothing wrong, to be on the safe side they would like to take me into an ambulance where a doctor could assess me. They made it clear that my flight to Ibiza would have to wait for another day.
The ambulance doctor and paramedic checked me over and then drove me to Newham Hospital where I had a conversation with the duty psychiatrist. He found nothing intrinsically wrong with me so later that afternoon I arrived home in my own town in Surrey, a bit dazed and worn out. The community health team met with me and offered to come and visit me at home daily over Christmas so they could keep an eye on me.
Over the next couple of days things slid downhill. I was hardly sleeping and I felt nervous about using my car to get to the shops (I lived three miles out of town) to buy food. I paced around in my sitting room and could not sit still at all and I kept my two suitcases packed ‘just in case’ I might be able to fly out to Ibiza one morning soon.
On Christmas Eve in the afternoon the community health team brought a psychiatrist with them. They were concerned about how I was going to manage over the festive period out here in the country and several miles from shops and friends. The psychiatrist suggested quietly that I might find it a bit of a relief to go into hospital for a few days. There I would be able to catch up on sleep and enjoy three good meals a day and have nurses on hand to talk with when I felt anxious or panicky with racing thoughts. Something inside me sort of slumped and melted at his offer of a bed, and without much resistance I agreed to go. I realised how very very tired out I was.
An occupational therapist generously offered to give me a lift to Langley Green in her car (there were no local beds available in Surrey at teatime on the day before Christmas). Her car was full of brightly wrapped presents for her children and family and festive snacks. She gave me a packet of Wotsits which I ate slowly as we drove through the Sussex countryside. Everything felt surreal and strange to me.
Arriving at Coral Ward, two lovely and kind junior doctors, Josh and Jenna, and a friendly nurse called Daisy, greeted me and interviewed me to get some background. They also checked my heart and pulse and blood pressure. Half an hour later I found myself stepping quietly into the main gathering space on the ward where several of my fellow patients were sitting in chairs some of them in Christmasy jumpers chatting and enjoying chocolates from a big tub of Celebrations.
My phone charging cable and all plastics from my luggage and my hairdryer were all taken from me and placed in a secure room. My room had a peephole in the door so that staff members would be able to monitor me all through the night. Everybody was very kind to me. A lovely night shift health care assistant called Crayton had a chat with me that night about my motivation for getting well again and about the ways I hoped to participate and engage with my peers. He and I are both fans of Superdry hoodies which gave us another point of connection and sharing!.
In my first week on Coral, I was really very unwell. I was convinced that my fellow patients were not really patients but rather undercover police officer actors who had been brought in to cross examine me and drive me into a corner and find me guilty and that then I would be sent to a high security prison. Whenever the breaking news headlines were read out on the television news I would clench my whole body up and wait in dread to hear my crimes and shocking story exposed to the world.I paced up and down, up and down, and could not sit still. I phoned my mother in a state of high alert several times begging her to come and take me away from this place where I truly believed staff and patients alike were in on a plot to chase me down and either rob me of all my money or more likely under cover of night do away with me in a quiet back alley way and dispose of my body leaving no trace. I thought that another Sarah had stolen my identity and that no one would ever believe that I had been married to my husband or at university studying English in the 1990s.
Thank God for the patient and compassionate gentle slow containing of me that the staff did during those first two weeks of my four week inpatient stay. They communicated regularly with my mother. She was a star in coming down on a long circuitous train and bus journey via Gatwick Airport from South London to see me each week. My ex husband Alan was a lovely and regular visitor too. My mother wrote to the psychiatrist in charge of my care so that everyone could ‘sing from the same hymnsheet’ and she wanted him to know just how unwell I’d become immediately prior to admission. She did not want me to be released too fast before some real healing had had time to happen.
Little by little, I started to relax and settle down into myself. The catering manager Raymond and his cheery assistant Collette made me feel cosy and cared for as they dispensed big bowls of steaming hot porridge to us all in the mornings and tasty soup and sandwiches at lunchtime and robust evening meals. I settled into the gentle daily rhythm. In the evenings a kind health care assistant would go into the kitchen and bring out special snacks for us such as fruit yoghurts and biscuits, and we would have a ‘hot chocolate huddle’ each evening too.
I started to feel safe there. One evening I kind of fell naturally into conversation with two of my fellow patients, a young guy of 21 and a woman in her mid 20s, and I found that actually I liked them and we had lots to talk about and I found myself laughing and feeling glad to be alive. The woman (I have changed her name to Sharon) loved writing and was crafting a fairytale short story on her laptop. She showed me a section of it shyly. The young guy told me he’d been watching me and that he thought I was ‘kind of cool’ and that he’d like to be my friend. Then they shared some sweets with me. I felt genuinely happy there and then that evening. All sitting round a little table in our PJs. It felt like childhood friendship.
I started noticing that the staff perhaps were not out to get me. I started seeing evidence every moment of small acts of genuine kindness happening all around me. A health care assistant had carefully put aside and reserved a favourite pudding for a patient who had been on day leave and would not be getting back til after supper. A nurse murmured reassuringly to a patient who was tearful and distressed, soothing her instinctively like a mother with her child. I noticed that the staff team were beautifully attentive to each others needs and that they communicated openly and honestly amongst themselves. They seemed actually delighted and happy to be part of the team and working here on Coral. There was gentle laughter and fun in the atmosphere.
The world began to move from black and white into technicolour for me. There was music on the ward and I would say a key aspect of my healing there was when a team of two musicians from MUSIC IN DETENTION arrived one Wednesday afternoon to begin a six week song writing workshop with us, linked to the asylum seekers’ detention centre near Gatwick Airport.I have always loved singing and as soon as I opened my voice in the gym that afternoon I started feeling genuinely alive and happy to be alive again. It was awesome ‘jamming’ with my fellow patient Matthew (I have changed his name) who it turned out was an amazingly gifted rap artist and when we all did drumming in rhythm together and sang our own lyrics over the top of the beat I just enjoyed a wonderful experience of coming into community with my fellow human beings. Truly, we were in this journey of our lives on our individual roads and here coming together to encourage and celebrate and give hope to each other.
Those music sessions were a JOY and it was wonderful to see the hospital occupational therapists and Ellie our lovely Coral ward activities coordinator coming down every session without fail to watch and enthuse and cheer us on. They made our day in doing that. I remember a new patient came down to join us one afternoon and she declared to me, ‘Sarah, I had goose bumps the whole time you were singing. You sing like an angel or like a choir boy! Beau-ti-fuuul!’. In saying that somehow she was restoring me to my real and well self. I felt playful and enthusiastic and privileged to be part of that project.
Meanwhile I was enjoying friendship with Sharon. I am a keen country walker and as we were both informal patients and allowed to go out I invited her to join me on a walk. Somehow we stumbled on a lovely country bridleway and footpath route that took us deep into the country and into mud and green fields and it did us so much good. Sometimes we would break into a run for the sheer fun of it! We sang as we walked along. And had great chats about every area of our lives. On the way home we would stop in a little park with a childrens playground to enjoy a go on the swings. And then it was a great feeling, getting back to the ward for the evening feeling sleepy and happy after all that fresh air and movement, to have a hot shower and then join our friends for supper.
I remembered that I used to love playing table tennis as a child and I became a regular player with my fellow patients. The girl in the room next door had her own private supply of hot chocolate sachets and sweets and I had several books and novels so we swapped sweets for books. And I discovered that my friend Sharon was passionate about film so we started a nightly ‘Netflix event’, turning out all the lights in the women’s lounge and drawing big chairs up and getting under our duvets to watch another great film. And then we would discuss them afterwards.I felt alive again. And delighted to be alive. And like I was coming home to the real Sarah.
The nurses and HCAs and my psychiatrist all started to notice the change in me. And they were very generous in their celebration of my recovery. I particularly remember a lovely night staff member called Eunice who was quietly joyful to see me happy and smiley again and I offered to teach her a few yoga poses. My sense of humour was coming back and I found I was having sheer gentle fun every day. I woke up feeling bouncy and refreshed and I was sleeping soundly. The solid NHS steamed puddings and crumble puddings and cake puddings, always with custard, were doing my body a lot of good too.
As my new outlook stabilised into being constant and each day, and as my Mum noticed the big turnaround in me on her visits, my psychiatrist explained that I would be able to go home soon. He took pleasure in the way I’d made some genuine friends on the ward and had become a sociable member of the community.
When the time to leave came part of me was very sad to leave Coral as by now I felt quite a deep affection and fondness for all the team I’d journeyed with through Christmas and New Year and into January 2019, staff and fellow patients alike. I knew I’d miss playing carefree giggly games of badminton with Ellie and the team in the gym, hanging out with my friends…yes, I would even miss the breakfasts and my special bowl of porridge!.
So, thank you to every member of staff at Langley Green and on Coral ward particularly. And thank you to every one of my fellow patients in there over Christmas and New Year 2018/2019. You guys rock! I have been following the hospital on Twitter ever since and I love seeing the development of your vegetable gardens and the new initiative for taking service leaders out for days and picnics at Tilgate Park. I certainly am a big fan of fresh air and oxygen! And I am thrilled to see the hospital winning lots of national recognition for your innovative models of working with patients and in your staff teams.
Seven months on, I have moved into my first home of my very own this week (!), which makes me feel deeply happy and relaxed and grounded and at peace. I am enjoying volunteering in a local community fridge and cafe project and I also love being part of my local yoga and church communities. My sister and children are coming to visit me next week so I must do more unpacking of all my boxes of belongings today! I would always be delighted to come into the hospital and share my experience with you.
Just as a postscript:it is sobering and important to see how too many life transitions or traumas coming all at once can seriously affect a person’s mental health and well being. For me it was the combination in the second half of 2018 of going through divorce and at the same time having to leave behind my beloved farm home and moving into temporary accommodation with all my belongings in storage and as well the strain and stress of trying to find a permanent home for myself that came together and overwhelmed me and knocked me off balance and sideways and into a period of mental ill health. Thank God Coral was there as a place of refuge and sanctuary where I could catch up on much needed sleep and nourish my body and slowly begin to find myself again and find my equilibrium in a gentle community with others. You guys, I salute every one of you, staff and fellow patients alike! We do not get better on our own. We do it together and in community.
Names amended to protect service leaders mentioned confidentiality.