8. The therapeutic power of WiFi and boxsets (Hospital and Me and BPD)

Maybe this seems a frivolous post after the intensity of some of the things I have written about (I think we all found my pumpkin carving shenanigans particularly gruelling), but I would not have coped during my stay on Stanage without my iPad, the ward WiFi and various TV streaming apps. I’ve talked in previous posts about the role that TV and film plays in my self-care and general mental wellbeing, and on the ward it was no different. Much like my visitors, tv shows helped me remember that there was life outside the double-locked doors, where people did not check on you every hour, and where every week celebrities waltzed with professional dancers for the public’s votes. 

I was thrilled when I found out I could get WiFi on the ward. My iPad, my phone and my Kindle were all essential in helping me feel connected and I felt a lot more settled once I knew they were all online. Maybe that seems sad to some people, but that little rainbow of WiFi at the top of my iPad screen meant the world to me.

Watching last year’s Bake Off final in my room on Stanage.

I actually had a complete meltdown about halfway through my time there, when I returned from an evening at home with Tom to find that the internet was down and nothing was connecting. I had got used to watching boxsets on my iPad before bed every night (whilst eating the biscuits mentioned in yesterday’s post) and it really helped to relax me. When I realised that on this particular evening I could not do this, I freaked out completely. It took a long time for Tom and the support worker on duty to calm me down. I genuinely did not know how I was going to cope without being able to escape into my screen before trying to sleep. Obviously I calmed down eventually and the internet was restored the next day, but this demonstrates how much I relied on these little routines while I was in there. (And still do.)

Netflix didn’t work on the WiFi. I’m not sure if it was just too much for the NHS WiFi, or if my iPad was already trying to tell me that it was nearing the end of its life (it was), but my go-to for streaming was not available. Because of this I ended up watching a lot of 4OD (Channel 4 catch up tv) and BBC iPlayer. The amount of boxsets on 4OD is actually really impressive, and I found myself watching a lot of comedy I hadn’t seen before. Drifters (basically a female version of The Inbetweeners) was surprisingly good, if incredibly revolting, and the absolute best thing I discovered was a series called Friday Night Dinner. Please, if you get chance, watch this. It’s so simple, so effective and so bloody funny. At a time when I couldn’t have cosy nights in with my family, I loved watching TV where that was all they did. It was really comforting, and really entertaining. Also, they’re currently filming a new series of it, which is very exciting.

TV shows provide us with so many things, and during my hospital stay they distracted me, gave me an evening routine, and made me laugh until I cried the good kind of tears. 

Never underestimate the power of good WiFi and the right apps.

Sarah x

7. Visitors and Biscuits (Hospital and Me and BPD)

I was very lucky – there wasn’t a day on Stanage when I didn’t have visitors. My husband, my parents and my in-laws (Val and Dave) all took it in turns to come and visit me. I think they communicated between themselves and came up with a bit of a rota, which was very sweet. What baffles me is how they managed to do that without me organising it for them. It was almost like they didn’t need me to hold everything together, after all! As someone who had put enormous pressure on myself to keep everything going whilst being ill, the fact that I could step back, let all the spinning plates drop, and THE WORLD CARRIED ON TURNING, was a bit of a revelation. 

Despite having daily visiting hours between 4pm and 8pm, the ward wasn’t exactly set up for one to receive visitors. The dining room had lots of tables and chairs but people would constantly be coming in to make cups of tea, or just wandering round, so privacy wasn’t easy to achieve. The communal area had various sofas, but again you’d have to share your visitor with other patients and support workers, and once again privacy was not high on the agenda. So I tended to take my visitors to my room, with two of us sitting on the little bed and one on the lumpy chair, all drinking tea out of whatever plastic mugs I could swipe from the kitchen. (I actually ended up hoarding one of these sought-after mugs, keeping it on the top of my wardrobe ready for the countless cups of tea I drank every day in there.)

It’s not an understatement to say that my little team of visitors kept me going. They all reminded of the life waiting for me when I came out, they brought me gossip and news and, most importantly, they brought me BISCUITS. Tom’s dad took great pride in bringing me boxes of the Really Good Cooperative cookies. My appetite wasn’t great while I was in there (anxiety tends to make food seem like such an effort), and I often only picked at the meals, but by the evenings I had usually calmed down and enjoyed tucking into my biscuit stash before bed. 

If they were fazed by the fact they were visiting me on a psychiatric ward, they never showed it. They took it all in their stride and happily chatted away to me about how everyone was doing, what I’d been up to and what birds they’d spotted (that last one was my dad). I know how absolutely shit it must have been coming to see me in that place, not to mention a complete pain because Sheffield is a bit of a nightmare to navigate, especially in the late afternoon/evening, but they always greeted me with big smiles and bigger hugs.

Tom, Mum, Dad, Val and Dave – I will never be able to thank you enough for the visits, the smiles, the hugs, the gossip and the biscuits. You kept me sane…ish.

Sarah x

6. Pumpkin Carving! (Hospital and Me and BPD)

I’m not sure how, but I managed to reach the age of 31 without ever carving a pumpkin for Halloween. 2018 was the year this would all change.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that one of the main things I found useful while I was on Stanage ward was the amount of occupational therapy on offer. If you’re not sure what that means, it’s basically activities designed to help improve mental wellbeing by keeping busy, completing a task, learning a new skill or being creative. One of the occupational therapists was called Jo, and she was a lovely, kind woman with excellent eye make up, who organised a lot of the daily OT activities. These were often seasonal – hence the pumpkin carving.

Nine times out of ten, when it came to OT, I never ever wanted to take part. I was unconvinced that doing some colouring in or hacking up an autumnal vegetable could improve my mood, and I thought the whole thing would make me feel like a bit of a tit, to be honest. But I had a lot of friends and family (hello, Val) who were adamant that getting involved with activities would help me. I wanted to be able to text them and say I’d tried, so I dragged myself along despite how I felt, often with tears pouring down my face.

On Halloween, Jo had organised for us to carve some pumpkins in the dining room, using tools designed for this exact purpose (who knew they even existed??), so I flopped into a seat and watched her demonstrate how to do it. And in spite of myself, my interest and creativity were piqued. So I carved the damn pumpkin. It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t right good, but it was the first one I’d ever done and I by the time I was finished I was strangely proud of it. Plus, using a miniature saw to carve a grotesque face was unsurprisingly cathartic. Our finished pumpkins were displayed in the dining room for the other patients to ‘admire’.

The result of my pumpkin carving OT session!

I think this was the first time during my stay that I’d actually allowed myself to enjoy an activity, and to feel proud of myself for my attempts. I started to realise that maybe OT wasn’t just an airy fairy babyish thing, but could be a useful tool for helping me to start feeling better.

Sarah x

5. Other patients (Hospital and Me and BPD)

As I said in my introduction to this series, I won’t be discussing any of the other patients on Stanage Ward in detail, or by name, but obviously it would be weird to not mention this aspect of my time there. Looking back, I can’t remember exactly how many us there were at the time. I think between 15 and 25 at once, although this was constantly changing.

I met a real range of people while I was in there, and learned a lot about different mental illnesses and the way they impact people. Most of the people there had been ‘sectioned’ which means their admission had been mandatory under the Mental Health Act. Unlike voluntary patients like myself, they were subject to strict rules about if and when they were allowed to leave the ward at all, and their time in hospital could be extended at any time, despite what their own wishes were. Whilst it would have been foolish of me to discharge myself, I could have done if I’d chosen to, and as long as I spoke to a member of staff who did a risk assessment before I left the ward, I could do so pretty much whenever I asked during the day, as long as someone was with me. 

The people I met were all so different, although many of them were grouped under similar diagnoses. Paranoid schizophrenia, personality disorder, eating disorder, severe depression, dementia. As a society we find these kinds of labels scary and often assume that those they are attached to are also scary or ‘other’, but everyone I met was just a person who wasn’t very well. Some were a lot more unwell than others, some would need to be on medication or under care for the rest of their lives to help manage their illnesses. Stanage is an acute ward, which means that most patients are sort of passing through on their way to the next stage of their treatment or care. Whilst a handful of patients were there for the entirety of my 18 days, most came and went within a week or so, either to another more specialised ward, to the next stage of their ‘step-down’ back into the community, or to their own home.

Some spent their days shut in their rooms, only leaving to venture to the outside space to smoke , but most like me sat in the communal areas, chatting to support workers and each other, and we all had to eat together in the dining room. I met some amazing, brave and inspiring people on Stanage. Some wrote poetry, some drew amazing pictures, others were kind enough to comfort me during my meltdowns despite how they were feeling. At times, the way some behaved was a bit scary, but none of it was ever directed towards me, and was usually based on some way they felt they were being unfairly treated. Which would make anyone angry, I think.

Sometimes I wonder where they all are and how they’re doing. You can’t help but grow close to people in that situation, and I did swap numbers with some of them before I left, but I’m not really in touch with anyone from Stanage now. I think when you’re coping with your own mental ill health, it can sometimes be hard to stay connected with others who are in their own dark place. 

I’m grateful for everything those people taught me about life, humanity and mental health. I wish as a society we weren’t so scared to see those with mental illnesses as people who deserve just as much love, respect and care as everyone else.

Sarah x

4. Wedding Anniversary (Hospital and Me and BPD)

***Trigger warning: explicit references to self harm***

What better way to spend your first wedding anniversary than on a psychiatric ward where your husband can only visit for a little while in the evening and the staff check on you every hour?

Three days after I was admitted was one year since our wedding day. I don’t think I’ve ever felt lower. That morning, in my ward room on my own, I used a sharpened pencil crayon to cut my arm and thigh repeatedly. I screamed and I cried. It was just so fucking unfair. A year before had been the happiest day of my life, and now here I was being the worst wife in the world, having trapped Tom into a marriage with a mad woman. Or at least that was what my very poorly brain was telling me. It wasn’t an amazing start to the day. I remember one of the scariest nurses telling me off (fair enough) and telling me that I needed to see my marriage as a reason to keep going, not a sign that I had failed. She was scary, but she was right.

On the ward we had a team of staff who organised occupational therapy sessions for us (more on these sessions in a later post), and on one of the first few days I was there we were making cards. Yes, the cliché is true – arts and crafts were deployed freely for us as a way of de-stressing and helping us be creative. Wait until you see the bowl I made in pottery… but I digress. 

The amazing work of art I made for Tom in OT.

I decided to face the fact that I was spending our anniversary apart from Tom, and made him a card. I drew, glued and bejazzled the shit out of it, with tears pouring down my face the whole time. It is possibly the tackiest thing I have ever made, and yet when I gave it to him he was thrilled, and that evening he sent me a photo of it in situ in our lounge. Bless his heart. He brought me a card into the ward (NOT homemade, what a slacker) and I put it up on top of my wardrobe so that I’d see it every day.

I’ve written previously about how supportive Tom is, and how he made sure I was as okay as possibly in hospital. He never made me feel guilty about being away from him, and a few days after our anniversary he picked me up from the ward and took me out on leave for the evening, to one of our favourite Sheffield restaurants.

As first anniversaries go, it wasn’t a conventional one, but it was ours, and it reflected what was going on in our marriage at the time. 

Tonight we’re going out for a meal to celebrate our second anniversary, and I won’t have a nurse checking me every hour. At least I hope I won’t, because that’d be weird.

Sarah x

3. My Room. (Hospital and Me and BPD)

Even a year on, I can still picture my room on Stanage really clearly. And as I write this, I realise that I actually took a photo on the day I left the ward. I haven’t looked at it since and if I can find it I will add it to this post.

Not an amazing photo, but it shows the hospital-style bed and the stylish plastic chair, plus the garish curtains. This was taken on the day I left, hence the packed bags. Yes, that is a cuddly grey cat that I’ve had since I was 7. Her name is Delilah.

First off, I was not expecting to have my own room. During a previous crisis, about a month before I arrived on Stanage, I had been offered a bed on another ward, had looked round it and been scared out of my tree by the cramped dormitory-style wards, and the angry, unhappy people I saw. At that point, I felt that being in that situation would not be beneficial to my mental health, so I declined the place. I guess it shows how desperate I was a month later, on 26th October, that when they offered again to find me a place, I didn’t even care that it might be like the first ward I’d seen. I just knew I needed to accept the help.

In the end, it was a completely different set-up, and this ward (Stanage) had a much calmer, less chaotic feel to it. Purely circumstantial, I’m sure, but I guess it shows just how much of a lottery mental health provision is, even within the same city.

Anyway, I did have my own room. It was very basic, but clean and pretty large. It contained just a hospital-style bed with a plastic mattress, a wardrobe with no coat-hangers, I guess for obvious reasons, and an easy chair that was slung very close to the floor.

The en suite toilet and shower were separated from the room by a thick plastic swing door, and again the en suite was very clean and very basic. The square shower tray was surrounded all the way round by a plastic curtain that liked to adhere itself to you while you tried to wash your hair and the towels were approximately the size of a sheet of A4, but for the time I was there it was all mine.

Along one side of my room was a massive window, which took up most of the wall. Very lovely, except that it looked out onto the outdoor space for the other ward in the building, so I often had my, garishly patterned, curtains closed. 

Overall, it may not have been much, but at the time it was my little sanctuary in the middle of the chaos of the ward and my own brain. I’ll always remember it really fondly as the place I first began to feel better, and it makes me extra-grateful for the lovely, comfy home Tom and I share.

Sarah x

2. First Day (Hospital and Me and BPD)

I arrived on Stanage Ward at the Michael Carlisle Centre in Sheffield late on the evening of 26th October. I was met by the Ward Manager, Tom, and told the basics of how everything worked. I was shown past the nurses’ office, through the communal area (including ping pong table and some plastic sofas), down a long corridor to my own (!) room, which had a mini en suite (!!!). Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t The Ritz, but it was mine, and I could close the door on the rest of the ward, and the world. The shower that evening, after the day I had had, could not have felt better. Even if Dwayne The Rock Johnson had joined me. Mmm, Dwayne The Rock Johnson. 

ANYWAY.

I waited until 10pm when I could go and collect my sleeping medication, then I crashed out my teeny hospital bed, under a very thin duvet, right up against a radiator belting out some RIGHT heat. I must have been exhausted from the previous day as I slept until about 6am the next day, which at that point was a lie-in for me.

If I’m honest I can’t remember many details about that first day, which is weird as my memory is generally pretty good. I can’t even tell you what I ate that day, which is unheard of. (My mum will tell you that as a kid she could ask me what she’d served to guests the last time they had visited, in order to not serve them the same meal this time.)

That first day on the ward was a Saturday, which is a pretty quiet day on wards in general. The doctors weren’t doing rounds and there was no chance of me seeing the consultant psychiatrist until at least the Monday. That was at least two days stretching ahead of me, two days with no contact with the people who I was hoping were going to help me get better. After the initial relief of being admitted and of accepting the help I so desperately needed, I started to feel hopeless again.

I remember speaking to one of the support workers on the ward (a poorly-paid and mainly thankless job, but the SWs were some of the most amazing people I have ever met), Sally, who was very kind and let me pour out my mixed-up thoughts to her. I saw a lot of her during my time on Stanage – she was straight-talking, funny and bonkers (in a good way). I will always remember that chat, the first proper one I’d had with anyone there, and although the details are hazy, I do recall that the overriding message from her was to try and use the time on the ward to take pressure off myself and relax as much as I could. She told me to treat it ‘like a really shit holiday camp’. At the time I had no idea what she was talking about, but looking back I know what she was doing was telling me to trust the process and let go of what I couldn’t control.

I don’t remember much else about that day. I must have met more people, staff and patients, that day but all I really remember is mainly thinking one thing over and over: 

‘What if this doesn’t make me better?’

Sarah x