Ben Russell, Lived Experience Group member for Equally Well UK
*Please be aware that this blog contains themes around self-harm and suicide which some might find triggering.
I’m on a bed in A&E, punching myself in the face. I can’t say how long I’ve been doing this for, but my arm has started to go dead and my cheek feels spongey. It’s just that I-wham!-can’t-wham!-believe-wham!-I’m-wham!-here-wham!-again-wham!
At home, close to four hours earlier, my computer started talking to me, telling me, REALLY LOUDLY, telling me that I’d failed. This is accompanied by a cacophony of bangs and crashes. I jump up off my seat and go upstairs to get away from it, but the banging follows. I break into a cold sweat and my mouth goes dry. I’ve got no choice. I run into my living room, ignoring the shouts of derision, and punch the monitor as hard as I can. Nothing, my computer screen is made of tough stuff, it seems. But, in spite of the punch, the computer is still shouting at me, calling me a loser.
I go completely apes**t, whacking the monitor again and again, snapping the keyboard over my knee and then grabbing everything and throwing it all down the stairs into the basement. I’m quite hysterical. The shouting has stopped, everything has stopped. I’m crying as I look down at the wreckage of my computer and then again at the bloody ruin my hands have become. I don’t know what to do. All the noise has stopped, but I don’t feel any better. In fact, I feel worse. Not just walking the tightrope, but sitting down on it and dangling my feet over the edge of the abyss.
I’m not really the full ticket, but I know enough to know that I need some help. I weigh up my options. I needed some help fast, but I felt guilty at the thought of taking up an ambulance that could be used to save someone else’s life. In the end I called 111. But after telling the operator that I’d thrown my computer down the stairs for shouting at me, she called an ambulance anyway.
When it turned up, some 10 minutes later, I was greeted by the male paramedic driver with an abrupt ‘Who’re we here for?’ I felt too guilty to speak and just looked at my feet. It was only the other paramedic that pulled me out of my shell by gently taking my arm. ‘What’s the matter?’ She asked softly. At which point I started to blub, tears trickling down my cheeks and I tell her what happened with the computer. The other paramedic tutted as he heard this, but the lady led me to the back of the ambulance and made sure I was all right before sitting next to me and holding my hand, a kindness that I’ve never forgotten. In A&E after being checked in, I’m sitting on the chair waiting to see the mental health worker. And I am climbing the walls. There’s a fly buzzing around me, but it’s always in the corner of my eye, so I can never see it properly. After seeing the therapist and establishing that the fly is not real and that I’m actually in the middle of a psychotic episode, he tells me that he’s going to see if there is a bed available on the Acute Mental Health Ward, but that in the meantime I’m going to get a bed in A&E so that a doctor can examine me.
Fast-forward and I’m sitting on the bed in A&E, punching myself in the face. A&E is understandably choc-a-block, with people from all walks of life. And I am not worthy to be in their presence, not even close. There’re people bleeding out in this place after being pulled from car wreckages, people taking their last breath and families saying their goodbyes. I feel like an ant in relation to them. How dare I be here? What gives me the right?
But, after loosening several of my teeth, I’m still no closer to the answer. The doctor, when he comes to see me, views me as a nuisance. I can tell he is not used to dealing with people with a mental health problem. He asks me some precursory questions while looking at a clipboard before vanishing again.
Unbeknownst to me, I’m getting some attention, as I pound my face in the same way that a chef would a lump of meat, an orderly comes to my bedside and lays his hands on my shoulders and says simply: ‘Stop.’ And, as if his voice were the click of a hypnotist’s fingers, I’m back in the room. I look around at the organised chaos and feel guilt. I can hear a woman crying hysterically next door to me. I feel like the scum of the earth. How dare I waste everyone’s time like this?
Almost on cue, the mental health worker I saw earlier appears like Batman in front of me and tells me that there’re no beds, which meant that I’d have to go home. Honestly, I was glad. I made him assurances that I wasn’t suicidal. And we rang my mum and arranged for me to stay with my parents whilst also making me an appointment with my psychiatrist. And then we parted ways.
It was only after going home and sleeping for almost 48 hours that I began to view my latest foray into the wonderful world of hospitals a little differently. I still felt deeply unworthy of the attention I received.
But, but, BUT. How would I have felt if it was my leg that was broken and not my head? Would I have felt guilty? I doubt it. Would the paramedic have tutted? Would the doctor examining me have been so abrupt? No. It’s a cliché to say that if you have an invisible illness you’re treated differently to someone with a visible one, but it’s true.
It’s unfortunate that I have an illness that no one can see. My mind is trying to kill me. Calling me a loser, telling me to jump out in front of traffic, to cut my wrists etc. But it’s not my fault either. Because I look ‘normal’ on the outside it’s presumed that there’s nothing wrong and that I MUST be wasting people’s time. Couple this with the famous British ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ where, to a certain degree, we’re expected to just suck it up and get on with things. And whilst it is certain that things have improved, and that mental health is more visible in the public arena, we still clearly have a very long way to go before there is parity between physical and mental health services.
(Photo by Emma Bailey of a random hospital that isn’t connected to this blog)