In August 2016 I visited the Living Museum in Bennebroek, near Amsterdam. This is a place where artists who have suffered from mental health problems can come to work at their art. It is, as far as I could make out, a series of interconnecting one-storey buildings, containing studio spaces and communal areas, without screens or walls, but with many alcoves, corners and small rooms where an artist can have a sense of privacy. There is a big open central area with a glass roof, like a huge green house, where people make sculptures, grow tomatoes and sunflowers and herbs, and where we enjoyed a communal lunch prepared by our hosts for the day, Helen and Henk. As soon as I saw it, I felt right at home. My first experience of Holland, nearly sixty years ago, when I was camping with the rest of my family and it was raining, was that a farmer suggested we camped in his huge greenhouses. After we had set up our tent, two Dutch men roared through the greenhouses on motorbikes and came to join us. As far as I was concerned, it was love at first sight, with all things Dutch. I even collect clogs.
The Living Museum was so peaceful and quiet, with such a friendly (though non-intrusive) atmosphere, that I longed to be able to work somewhere like that, to escape the lonely isolation of my studio in my garage at home in Kent. The only times I’ve shared a studio space with other people I’ve hated it: the too thin walls, other people’s music, no friendly contact. In one place in Glasgow someone next door was practising the bagpipes every time I went in. I’ve always wanted to share a space where I could quietly get on with my own thing while surrounded by people who might want to share ideas and a coffee on a break.
I wasn’t sure that I’d be allowed to work in the Living Museum, however, since I’ve never officially been diagnosed with or treated for any mental health problem. That’s not to say that I haven’t suffered from them. Under the radar, I have struggled with serious depression all my life, with occasional breakdowns and psychotic episodes. I haven’t exactly been able to cope but I have never been reported to the authorities, and if doctors I have seen about associated illnesses have thought “oi, oi, here’s another one” they’ve kept their speculations to themselves. Except recently, after cancer treatment when I was diagnosed as suffering from PTSD – but then that’s a recognised outcome even for ‘normal’ people, who can be referred to the local Hospice for six sessions of outpatient treatment.
After lunch, we visited the Dolshuys Museum. I hadn’t seen this written down, and was excited about visiting a “doll’s house museum”, a subject dear to my heart and important for my art. So I was pretty dismayed to discover my error on our arrival: Dolshuys in Dutch means madhouse. Not a doll’s house in sight.
I had been feeling a little left out, a little sorry for myself, thinking that if you are labelled as a person with a history of poor mental health, there are a lot of programmes – art as therapy, self development workshops, money for bursaries, help with exhibitions, and so on, for which I have never qualified. I suffered from M.E. for seventeen years, during which I didn’t claim any state benefits (to which I was entitled) because I didn’t want to be put through the monthly humiliating charades about my capacity or otherwise for work. I had M.E. before it was classed as an illness, and there was a lot of prejudice against it, rather as there was in my younger days when secrecy and stigma were the ‘normal’ attitudes to mental illness.
The Dolshuys is a fascinating museum. I am no stranger to the history of mental illness and its treatment, having read widely on the subject as well as having a degree in Psychology and post-graduate studies in Epidemiology, and having worked on a psychiatric ward in a major London hospital in 1980 – 1981. But it’s another matter being presented with documents, photographs and artefacts in an ex-mental hospital. I was already feeling disturbed and distressed enough, when we got to the room used for solitary confinement. I didn’t want to go in with the others, but didn’t feel able to refuse, so followed them in. The door closed. The inside was painted black, there was no window, and when it was in use the door was locked. It seemed to be about three metres square, if that. The patient would most likely have been straitjacketed. Twenty-four hours of this confinement was expected to calm the patient down. After five minutes, I was beginning to go off my head – I’d have been bouncing off the walls if I’d been on my own. I’m a bit claustrophobic these days since a brain MRI scan about ten years ago, and I’m not happy with total darkness either. When we came out Helen informed us that a woman still living remembered being subjected to this “treatment” in 1968 in this hospital, in this very room. Something like a bomb went off in me.
This could have happened to me. After I left home at 18 in 1964 to live in London, I was pretty unstable, and my life became very unstable … not a good combination. I was studying for a bilingual secretarial diploma at the French Institute, and I loathed every aspect of it: the tutors, who hated English girls; most of the girls, many of whom had attended finishing schools and went around in cliques, finding my Northern accent and my shabby clothes terribly terribly amusing; the school-like atmosphere; much of the subject matter; learning to type and use a stenotyping machine; commercial German. Most of all I loathed having to be there by 9 a.m. sharp, fully made-up, dressed semi-formally and in high-heeled shoes, behaving with decorum. I was not executive secretary material. Furthermore, I moved lodgings (not by choice) fourteen times in the first year. After two years of this Hell (which included a short period of hysterical blindness and various other strange dissociated episodes), I went on to study for a BA in English Literature at London University. There I experienced such acute exam phobia that I was sent home to my parents. I started to cry during an Old English exam, when I found I couldn’t see to read the questions, and didn’t stop (except when asleep, I presume) for about ten days, at which point my parents sent me back to college by physically pushing me onto a train. I gave up this degree after two years, and got married, to a bad egg as it turned out. I had episodes of catatonia during our short marriage, after particularly bizarre behaviour on his part, but the real breakdown occurred after he left me and ran away to Paris.
I stopped sleeping. I couldn’t go home from work in the evenings. I would start to cry before I left the office. I was suicidal most of the time for months. Whenever I was walking in the streets and always when walking home from work, I hallucinated that my clothes were dissolving and that my arms had disappeared. You might wonder how I escaped a psychiatric ward. Well, I was terrified of hospitals, and especially “loony bins”. I’d read R.D.Laing and Erving Goffman, and it felt like a matter of life and death to avoid them. A friend of mine was having psychotherapy at the time, and I asked him to ask his therapist to recommend someone I could go and see. She made an appointment to see me, and then said she would take me on herself.
That was and is one of the best things that have ever happened to me, a turning point in my life. I was 24 then, had no idea what I was taking on, or how I could afford to pay her. All I knew was that I was afraid for my life, one way or the other. I didn’t really want to die, I just wanted relief from the agony of mind I was in. For the first six months, she didn’t attempt any therapy. She gave me a safe place twice a week for me to cry in company. She prescribed me low dose anti-depressants and tranquillisers so I began to sleep. And gradually the crying got under control. She continued to save my life, in various ways, for the next ten years, until she retired at the age of 75. I was so lucky to find her. She was an unorthodox, Tavistock-trained, Freudian/Jungian. We didn’t get to the bottom of what was wrong with me, but only because it wasn’t possible at that time, I didn’t have the information. When I was 38 my mother gave me the missing piece of the jigsaw, and how I wished I could have gone back to Dr Pott (known to her pals as Potty) then!
I continued on my path of self-discovery and individuation and still keep the Jungian faith. I’ve had an abusive therapist, an inadequate therapist, an untrustworthy therapist, and now happily a therapist who is a companion on my pilgrimage which she believes doesn’t even end with death. So I have been supported and sustained, able to have someone to talk to and to ask for what I need, almost all of my adult life. I have been able to understand where the roots of my mental illness lie, and how to manage it when it’s at its worst.
The Dolhuys made me wonder seriously: what would have happened to me if instead of asking my friend for a referral I had taken to wandering the streets of London in earnest? (I remember wandering by the Thames at one o’clock in the morning thinking about jumping off a bridge, and instead finding a public phone box and phoning Dr P. – who had told me I could phone her day or night.) I might have been incarcerated somewhere that had a room for solitary confinement, given electric shock treatment, been drugged out of my mind, discharged, readmitted, a lifetime of instability and branding and being controlled by other people and their agendas. A lifetime of being one of them, not one of us. I would have been one of those people, like my brother, having his compulsory monthly jab of lithium because he was “non-compliant” about his meds; like my sister-in-law’s two sisters, institutionalised and pitiful wrecks of pill-poppers from being locked up at an even younger age than I was for less of a breakdown; like my mother’s cousin, incarcerated at the age of eighteen for some sexual peccadillo, only being let out at the age of seventy when government policies changed; like my brother’s girlfriend, brain addled by various treatments over the years; like my cousin, suicided.
These people that run institutions, they are not your friend. I found a friend, who did whatever she could to make me well, unstinting of time and money and very mean with meds; and I found an almost stranger, a woman at work who took me home one weekend when I couldn’t leave the office, and more or less nursed me so I could return to work on Monday morning.
I worked on the psychiatric ward of a major London hospital for a year, where they were still using electric shock treatment from time to time in the room next to my office. I was told to lock myself in at those times. My office heating system was connected to that room, so I always knew when the treatment had started because the temperature went up to 85 or 90 degrees, and that’s if the patient wasn’t screaming at the nurses and fighting not to be put on the machine. I have had a bad enough time with cancer treatment and other medical procedures which feel like torture, with the perpetrators insisting “we are only doing this for your own good” to know that I would not have reacted well. I would have been non-compliant too. As it happened, a friend of mine was on the ward for treatment during a psychotic episode in which she felt that she inadvertently controlled the world’s weather – a twitch in a toe could produce a hurricane in Florida, for instance – a truly devastating condition. She used to come and visit in my office, until my boss found us walking down the corridor one day. He was horrified, and told me I wasn’t to let patients “bother” me, and if she came again he would increase her medication to subdue her. And I had thought I was helping her recovery by providing a kind of continuity with “normal” life and friendship!
If I couldn’t stand the constraints and rules of the French Institute, from which I was free to walk out any time I wanted, or the protocols and double-talk of cancer treatment, how could I have tolerated the straitjacket of the psychiatric ward? It would have broken me by the end of the first day. The only place I’ve found with a me-shaped space in it was a commune in 1970 – 72, but even that was too institutionalised for me. By anybody’s standards, my life story is not a happy read. If I had been hospitalised, I would have been in and out all my life. I would not have learned to cope on my own without meds. I often wanted sanctuary but couldn’t find it, so I just had to find a way. Used every second of my fifty-minute hours, and made them last through the rest of the week. Kept on working. There would have been no art ever from me. I have often in hard times thought that I would have been better off labelled and looked after by the system, because then at least my condition, my frailty, would be recognised and supported. But the Dolshuys has cured me of that. I made the right choice. All the bursaries, group hugs, opportunities, workshops in the world wouldn’t have helped me deal with a system that hasn’t a clue about who I am and doesn’t want to find out.