Teenage life in the swinging sixties, hanging out in coffee bars talking fashion and pop music, who could wish for more? But in August 1968, growing pains started to kick hard for 18-year-old office worker Jean Davison and adolescent idealism quickly turns to angst and emptiness.
With her home life in chaos, Jean turns to a psychiatrist hoping for a sensible adult to talk to. That’s where her problems really begin: a week’s voluntary psychiatric rest is the start of one long nightmare of drugs, electric shock treatment and abuse which turn her into a zombie.
Losing five years of her young life to the mental health system, Jean finally finds the courage to say “no” to drugs and turns her life around, finds love and returns to the mental health service as a worker.
Balancing quotes from case number 10826, her actual case notes which reveal a diagnosis of chronic schizophrenia, with her own account of interviews with doctors, this memoir raises disturbing questions on the treatment of psychiatric patients, which are still relevant today
Jean Davison, was born in 1950 into a working class family in Yorkshire She left school at 15 to work in a factory. After leaving the psychiatric system she returned to education to study for GCEs. She has worked as a secretary for the NSPCC and within the health service. In 1979 she met Ian who she later married. She later graduated from university with a first-class degree in literature and psychology. Still living in Yorkshire with Ian, she now works in mental health. The Dark Threads is her first book.
‘We are in grave danger!’ a voice insists.
I can hear the words, but from somewhere distant. I keep floating away. A blurred, drugged sensation. Sounds of moaning. Stench of vomit and urine. I feel the hardness of the mattress, the roughness of the blanket. I am trying to focus my eyes on a ghostly figure beside my bed, but semi-darkness encircles me.
I remember hearing screams. I grip the blanket. What else do I remember? My befuddled brain throws up a vague recollection of being held down firmly and suffocating blackness. Nothing makes sense. Exorcism? Purgation? Trials and torture? But where are the witches? We don’t burn witches any more. We don’t believe in witches now. The Dark Ages are gone but, oh, it is not safe here. There is a grey mist about me; someone keeps warning of grave danger; and my head hurts so badly. I have had a very strange dream, a terrible nightmare. Am I awake or am I still dreaming?
After a half-hearted attempt to sit up I succumb to the seduction of the pillow to rest my aching head. This is not the same as an ordinary headache, more like the soreness of a nasty bump. But not a surface lump. It is somewhere inside my head; this soreness, this dull, throbbing pain.
My eyes follow the white-clad figure. It is not a ghost but a nurse. She is moving to the next bed. There on the bed, a thin, straggly-haired woman is stretching her arms towards me and warning of danger.
‘We are in grave danger!’ She is even more insistent. Her voice is shaky and hoarse.
I am aware now that my bed is in a row of beds. One woman is sitting on the edge of her bed vomiting into a bowl. Some are moaning, others lying quiet and still.
Where am I? What day is it? Who are these people? And who am I? Please don’t give me a number or a label or a curious sidelong glance. Tell me my name.
Creeping tentacles of fear spread over my body, reminding me of waiting – that long anxiety-filled stretch of waiting. Before ECT. That’s it! We’re waiting for electric shock treatment. The nurse is standing near my bed. It must be my turn. Ripples of apprehension run from my stomach to my throat, then settle into a tight knot of fear somewhere inside my chest. Perhaps if I tell her I feel ill I’ll be able to get out of it. God knows it isn’t a lie.
‘Can I be excused ECT today?’ I am begging her. ‘I’ve a bad headache.’
The nurse laughs loudly as if it is all a huge joke. ‘Excused ECT? You’ve had ECT.’
‘Have I?’ I say, bewildered. ‘But I don’t remember.’
I feel as if half my brain has been bombed out but, oh, what a relief to know it is all over. At least for today.
‘Be a good girl and get up now, then you can have a nice cup of tea.’ The nurse is beaming pleasantly. Meekly I obey. Just like a good girl.
I am handed a cardboard container full of warm, muddy-looking liquid, which I suppose must be the nice cup of tea. It tastes foul.
‘Don’t drink it! They’re trying to poison us!’ a woman in a hospital dressing-gown whispers in my ear as she shuffles past.
Still in a trance, I survey my fellow sufferers. We’re a mixed bunch. Some look as if they would give the devil himself a fright but most seem just lost, confused and so very vulnerable. ‘Where are my teeth?’ ‘Where are my glasses?’ ‘Oh, the pain, I can’t stand the pain.’ ‘I’ll sue you all for this, you fucking bastards!’
As I listen to the other patients and watch them wandering around in a daze, I find it hard to believe it’s real. Aren’t these people mentally ill? But not me too? No, no, it must be a bad dream. Or there must have been a dreadful mistake. I shouldn’t be here; a part of my mind is weeping and protesting against the horror and humiliation of it all. I’m losing my powers of reasoning and my self-respect. I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to get the hell out of here. Before it’s too late.
But is it already too late? I have been violated at a deeper level than words can say. How can I ever be the same again?
Looking back through the drugged haze and post-ECT fog it seems strange to think that, only a fortnight earlier, I was walking through the park on my way to that first appointment at the outpatient clinic. I had never seen a psychiatrist, never even heard of ECT as I dawdled along, crunching underfoot the autumn leaves, those lovely golds and reds and russet browns which swirled about and decked the tree-lined path near the pond. Here I sat on a bench for a while, savouring the scene. It was turning cold but the pond was not yet frozen. The leaves were falling but the trees were not yet bare. Squirrels still darted about now and then, birds still sang and the ground was not yet shrouded in snow. But winter was fast approaching. Soon all would be changed.
Shouldn’t there have been some kind of ritual, some rite of passage, to mark such a sudden and awesome transformation? One day I was living in a teenage world of discos, pop songs, dating, giggles with female friends, religious angst and worries about pimples. The next day I was in a nightmare world of drugs, ECT, humiliation and long, bleak corridors leading me far from home. And the only connecting thread, it seemed, was when I had calmly, and I thought sensibly, decided to see a psychiatrist and then agreed to be hospitalised.
How can this be? Have I forgotten something that might explain it all? If I begin by following that connecting thread, will it lead me to answers?
I am still trying to sort out my thoughts when the nurse tells us that an ambulance is waiting to take us back to our wards. How could I have been stupid enough to let my life get into such a mess? And how am I ever going to get myself out of it? I stumble into the ambulance feeling dizzy and disorientated.
The ambulance is bumping across the broken tarmac. In the far corner the hoarse voice keeps on saying, ‘We are in grave danger!’ I am sitting wedged between two plump, dressing-gown-clad patients with vacant, staring eyes. I am thinking about the God I don’t believe in, my need of ‘Him’ accentuated by sheer desperation. Dear God in heaven. Friend of my childhood. Comforter and Guide. Where, oh where are You now?