“You taught me to be nice, so nice that now I am so full of niceness, I have no sense of right and wrong, no outrage, no passion.” Garrison Keillor
I remember when my parent was in hospital I was always being asked to be nice. Be nice to the nurses. Be nice to the doctors. Be nice. My mother knew exactly how I felt about the staff. She wouldn’t talk about how they were treating my father and so why I had a problem with the workers behaviour was ignored. She would admit that she thought they weren’t that nice, but wanted me to be nice to them anyway. She had the ultimate punishment if I tried to explain why I was upset at the way people were treated by staff in the ‘horrible place’. She could say I was not being nice enough and she could refuse to take me with her when she visited. “If you can’t be nice, it’s because you can’t cope. Everyone will understand that it’s too much for you, I won’t take you.” Learning to be nice, I guess, is about experiencing what it is like when people with power find very reasonable ways, that sound nice, to not be nice at all.
What I learnt was that people can hide a lot behind nice words. Nice words are like smoke, confusing and blurring what is really there.
Esme Weatherwax didn’t do what was nice. She did what was needed.
The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett
I read a lot at that age, not having too much in common with my friends and it was a good escape. I knew that ‘nice’ really meant ‘accurate’ as does ‘subtle’. I decided that I was being very nice as I was being accurate in what I observed and subtle in how I behaved.
“He fell,” the Nurses said, when I pointed out bruising on his upper arm.
“They fall a lot, the patients here,” I said.
“Well, a lot of them are very old,”.
I did think that about 50 years old or more was VERY OLD. “He didn’t get bruises like that if he fell at home.” I felt stubborn, looking directly at something that was happening that I could not quite see, but somehow being pushed away and back by niceness. Persistance felt like some sort of victory.
When people fall the bruising is all down one side where they landed, not on one or both sides at the top, with finger marks. I noticed. I drew a picture of the outline of the body and marked the bruises on it. Over time, there were lots of little diagrams like that in my notebook.
I sat in the Day Room and noticed the absence of the nurses (Why was I in the day room on my own? Who knows… Mum might have been with Dad?). I sat in the Day Room and noticed Patients sitting staring into space. A lot of people had strange movements in their limbs and were drooling, when they walked they shuffled, but then again, nobody moved or spoke much. It was oppressive. I didn’t write anything down in my notebook about that, as there wasn’t much happening. I just guessed this was how the illness progressed. Sometimes the harm is so thoroughly hidden that you can’t see it.
I did notice some other things. I noticed that the nurses only turned up if someone started making a lot of noise and movement, then they turned up en masse and the person was removed very quickly. I wrote it down in my notebook.
Sometimes patients were in the Day Room, sometimes they were not. If you asked after them, there was never any answer about where they were, from Nurses or Patients. I thought this was weird. I would have thought people would have said, “Oh, they went home”, or, “Oh, they were in their room, so don’t bother them”. Sometimes it feels like something is up, but you can’t note anything in your notebook.
Once I was in the Day Room and called out ‘No’ when one of the nurses tried to pull someone up by the wrist of one arm. I knew you could do damage handling someone, especially that particular patient who seemed frail, that way. As I moved quickly across the room to show the Nurse how to help someone up, a lot of nurses turned up, looked at me, told me to be quiet and to my relief went away. I felt frightened. Did these people demand absolute silence? Why was it quieter than the school Library? If I made too much noise, what would they do to me? What did they do the patients when they made too much noise? I wrote it down in my notebook.
I was with my Mum and younger sibling. Dad’s room was in a mess, sheets all over, bed pushed away from the wall. He sat in the corner, being very quiet, he didn’t seem to be ‘with us’ though. He was a very tidy person so the room puzzled me. The person he shared a room with wasn’t around either which was unusual. Mum quickly sent me and my younger sibling out. I wrote it down in my notebook.
My younger sibling caught some Nurses talking to our Dad. They had found out that if they saluted him, he stood up and saluted back saying, ‘Captain’ and they were laughing. Dad thought he was back in the army, which he had hated and where he had especially disliked his Captain. He told me that he had survived the army by doing what he was told and keeping his head down. This was one of the stories Dad had told me often, usually in an effort to get me to keep my head down, which he felt would be a good life skill for me to grasp. I wrote it down in my notebook.
Over some time, I came to some conclusions:
- there were no activities and nothing to do, even though there was an activity schedule on the wall it never changed. Patients looked blank when I talked about it.
- there was a kitchen for families and patients, but it was always locked for some reason
- the door to the garden was always shut and locked so everyone was always inside
- the nurses turned up if there was any sound at all and never came alone
- when people had more strange movements in their limbs they were more likely to get up and call out, then many Nurses turned up at once and took them away
- the bruises on my Dad all the time were not consistent with a fall
One day I found a Psychiatrist in the Office, I had been looking for one but Psychiatrist’s seemed even more scarce than the Nurses. The Nurses had told me the Psychiatrist was in charge when I asked questions, as they thought I should speak to him, not them a bout any concerns I had. I hoped he could change the things that were bothering me. I showed him my notes. He took my book, flicked through the pages and said, very gently “Well, it’s up to the nurses how they do their job. I prescribe the medicine, they give it. Don’t you want your Dad to get better?” My Dad didn’t seem to be getting better, he seemed to have suddenly got a lot worse. The Psychiatrist left, taking my book with him. His answer was more puzzling than my observations though. In my teens I didn’t understand what medication and treatment could have had to do with a silent day room, an intolerance for even a normal amount of noise, poor skills in handling and lifting, no activities, persistant patterns of unexplained bruising, a closed garden, a shut up kitchen, intimidating gangs of nurses and messy rooms.
When we got home my Mum was fierce. In a rare moment of clarity, she held me by the shoulders against the front door and shook me.
“Why did you do that? You’ll make it even worse for him.” she hissed. “Be nice.”
Then the clarity subsided back into silence and stories about how the way they were treating him was necessary and helpful. I could see one story sliding out of her mind as she shook me and the easy story rising up to take its place.
Many years later at Univeristy my friend who was studying psychology and I had an argument one evening about schizophrenia, the dopamine hypothesis and anti-psychotics. I learnt then that brutality enforced by law is based on a highly contested viewpoint. The extent of the lie and the extent of the abuse that the lie can allow hit home, the image of the Day Room and the patients, the meaning of what the Psychiatrist had said and fragments of memory came together and pushed me away from the world. I was aware that my friends were talking, trying to get me to give them my attention but I repelled the society we lived in away from me and as I did so their voices became distant as did the lounge I was in. I couldn’t be there in the world we had made, so I went away. I didn’t respond to anyone for several days while I processed the answers to the questions I had been trying to ask in my notebook. When I came back from wherever my mind had been driven to, there was a row of mugs of cold tea outside the door of the spare room where my friends had put me, my best friend was lying next to me reading and some anxious whispering was going on in the lounge. I didn’t really have anything to say about it when I came downstairs though, as there is just not really much to say about a lie that big and that catastrophic.
It’s well known abuse causes trauma. Psychiatric patients are traumatised by inhumane and degrading treament when they experience it and some survivors talk of this experience as torture. Witnessing abuse also causes trauma, in everyone that witnesses it, including those who take part in abuse. It was the State and its Officials who traumatised me. I won’t call them Mental Health Professionals, I am absolutely certain that until they sort out the coersion and Human Rights Abuses underpinning their professional practice, that they don’t deserve it. They have not earnt the right to the word ‘health’ or the word ‘professional’.