Psych wards are busy places. There are hundreds of jobs to do and never enough staff to get them all done. During my brief time in one, I watched the nurses and care assistants charge up and down corridors, muttering to do lists under their breath, and wondered why I – an able-bodied, bored- rigid patient, couldn’t muck in with some of the menial tasks to pass the time. ‘It’s not allowed I’m afraid,’ a nurse told me. She mumbled something about risk assessments and sped on her way.
As a result of this inbalance of labour, the hospital contained two completely inconsistent atmospheres: one of relentless, crushing tedium, and one of relentless, crushing activity. They passed uneasily alongside one another like weather systems. Patients languished in a heavy fog. Staff spun in tornados.
On one particularly dull Tuesday afternoon, I called in on my friend Amelia for a chat. ‘This place is called a ‘Hope and Recovery Centre’,’ she said, lying sulkily on her bed. ‘How are we supposed to hope and recover with nothing to do?’
‘I read this story once called The Yellow Wallpaper,’ I said, sitting on a chair next to her. ‘It’s about this really anxious woman who is told to get bed rest. She lies there, day after day, with nothing to do or think about, but she’s got this really intricate wallpaper with a yellow flower design running all the way through it and she drives herself insane by analysing it.’
‘At least our walls are white,’ she replied. ‘I don’t know if that’s better or worse.’ There was a bland, inoffensive canvas hanging on Amelia’s wall that broke up the blankness of the paint the way a meaningless platitude breaks a silence.
A nurse swung the door open to do her hourly checks. She placed a tick next to each of our names and turned to leave.
‘Is there anything we can do today?’ Amelia pleaded.
‘Sure.’ The nurse said. ‘Go to the TV room. Doris is watching Oprah Winfrey.’
Doris loved chat shows. She kept the remote control firmly in her hand all day, and put it in her dressing gown pocket when she went to lunch.
‘Or go in the garden. The sun’s out.’
We went outside, squeezed ourselves past the smokers, and paced slowly around the garden to make the walk last longer. We did eight laps and then started to feel silly.
‘It would be nice if they let us plant something,’ Amelia sighed, refusing to go around again. ‘Gardening is harmless, right?’
It was April. The daffodils on the edge of the lawn were blooming, but the soil they were planted in was flecked with cigarette butts. There were hundreds of them, maggot-like, a toxic yellow pattern that spread along the border.
‘I have an idea.’ Amelia said. She took my wrist and dragged me back inside.
‘Do you have any bin bags?’ She asked the first nurse she saw.
‘We want to tidy up the flower beds. They are full of ciggie butts.’
She looked at us incredulously. It was craziness alright, but not as she knew it.
‘We have a gardener for that, girls. Why don’t you go and watch Oprah.’
‘We don’t want to watch Oprah,’ Amelia said, with sudden ponytail-swishing assertiveness that I wanted to cheer. ‘We want to help the flowers grow!’
Another five second stare, and the nurse retrieved a couple of plastic carrier bags from the office. ‘Use these,’ she said. ‘Don’t be out too long.’
We worked, with Girl-Guide focus, till our fingernails were black with earth and our knees dyed green with the grass. Together, we were brave enough to ignore the three nurses who were watching us, baffled, from their office. Eventually, it was all too much for one of them, who came into the garden to make it stop.
‘That’s enough now girls,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Back inside now.’ We got to our feet and looked down at the patch of earth we had saved. The daffodils seemed healthier now – golden, rather than sallow. There was hope for them. They had recovered. I smiled at Amelia, both of us feeling energised at having passed, momentarily, into the nurses’ weather system. And there it was: the first non-chemical high I had felt in a week.
We went back to the TV room, joined Doris on the couch, and listened passively to Oprah talk about wellbeing.