White Coats (or not)

Seven weeks ago, my Dad was taken to hospital where he spent a week being treated for pancreatitis, after which he took some time off work to get better and is now perfectly fine.

A few nights ago, I was detained under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. I spent four hours in a special suite in a hospital in Oxford, being watched by a nurse constantly, before I was seen by two doctors and a social worker and subsequently released home.

The difference between these two sentences is one of the great injustices that somehow still exist in the twenty-first century. We were both ill. We both went to hospital. We both went home to be looked after. We both are or will be better with the right aftercare, precautions, and whatnot. Except that to talk about my experience isn’t really done. Mental health is something that takes a lot more to talk about, even in this age of raised awareness and understanding. Somehow, despite the fact that we can now talk about breast cancer with men and testicular cancer with women, that people are starting to open up about miscarriages, and all sorts of personal, painful physical ailments and events, talking about brains (something I’m reliably informed everyone has, despite the existence of internet trolls) is too difficult.

The perception of getting detained by the Police for mental health reasons like that is horrendous. The idea of being ‘136-ed’ was terrifying to me for years, with images of people genuinely dangerous to the public being taken down by The Men In White Coats abound (who hasn’t heard/made that joke at some point in their life?). Having at one time dated a guy who was training for the Police, I had a better explanation of the legal side of it all, but the process on the ground is, I think, very much unknown unless you’ve actually been through it. So here’s the story of what happened.

The details are unimportant up to the point where I walked out of my flat in my pyjamas, barefoot, and started up the Iffley Road in the rain. It’s exactly as mad as it sounds, no question of that. I walked over broken glass, through puddles, across roads without looking, all in a daze of unthinking, unfeeling (and not just in the case of my feet) determination to end it all. Long before I got there, though, the Police caught up with me, no doubt aided by the kind gentleman who called them after I gave him the brushoff as well as my Mum. They were kind, first and foremost, asking me what I was doing, where I was going, what I was going to do when I got there, which once ascertained, they equally gently told me that they couldn’t let me do that, and would I come with them. Argument was futile at this point, and I didn’t have the mental energy to do it anyway, so I ended up walking back with them literally propping me up all the way back to the van parked a ways down the road. There was no grand chase when it came down to it – the speed was in working out where I was in general, but once I was found, it all happened in a much more sedate manner than all that. I wasn’t personally aware of a single siren or blue light, though I was later informed that they were in use at the outset.

The next bit is a bit of a haze, to be perfectly honest. I remember sitting in the back of the van for a long time, the heating on to try and warm me up a bit in the absence of much else to do it (pyjamas, remember?), while they called an ambulance to check me over and take me away. This was the point where they told me that I was going to be detained under Section 136. It was done calmly, carefully, and kindly at all points, although I remember a brief frisson of cold when they dropped the bomb. I am absolutely sure it would be different if I’d been violent or aggressive to them, but that’s not an avenue I care to explore. The point was they found me in a position of unsafety and wanted to fix that, that’s the whole idea of Section 136 at all.

Once it was established where I was going, and that I was basically physically OK beyond being cold and seriously underdressed for the weather, we set off. I couldn’t keep track of where we were at all, but it wasn’t long before we reached my destination. I assume there was a handover, while I was taken to a suite specifically designed for this moment, and admitted by a nurse who explained again what was going to happen to me, what the possibilities were from there, and asked if I needed anything. There were lots of things that showed just how bad this process can be — I was patted down to make sure I didn’t have something secreted somewhere on my person, the blanket was a special kind that couldn’t be ripped and turned into something (Lord only knows what), there were no corners, etc. After the first nurse left, someone sat with me to watch me the whole time. It was awkward at first, but as I warmed up, calmed down, and felt a bit more human, I got talking to them. I couldn’t tell you what we talked about, but they were again kind, encouraging, and ever willing to help in whatever way they could. I got something to eat and drink, and in all was there for about three hours before the doctors and social worker came to talk to me. I have yet more hazy memories of probing questions, endlessly kind demeanours all round, and working out the best thing to do. From this point, there were several options. Briefly, I could have been sent home or admitted to hospital on varying levels of severity, which include being Sectioned in one way or another. I was asked what I wanted to happen, not that I knew entirely, as well as every other question going, before they went off and deliberated, which process seemed to take longer than the preceding hours.

At the end of it all, I was released to my Mum. I spent a total of four and a half hours in the hospital, shorter than you’d expect to spend in A&E on a Saturday night. It was scary, I don’t mind admitting that. The suite I was in was attached to a psychiatric ward, and I remember hearing people shouting, presumably having a much worse time than me at that stage. If I’d been Sectioned, I might have been placed (at least temporarily) on that ward, which was part of the reason they decided that being sent home was the best thing. [Update: you can read here about what happened when I did actually end up on a ward a couple of months later.]

This long after the event, it’s easier to process what happened. I was terrified by and after the event, but I knew that writing this wasn’t going to be a bad idea. Trying to destigmatise mental health is an effort that many people are behind, and if we can break down my experience to exactly what it is, i.e. a trip to hospital because I needed it, I hope (perhaps naïvely) that it will help the process. Essentially, I went to the mental equivalent of A&E. It’s really that simple, for me. I won’t deny that it’s not always so for everyone, that much is clear, and it, like any other hospital trip, could always be more dramatic somehow.

I suspect the kind stranger who refused to take the brush-off from me didn’t think he knew what he was doing when he called the Police, but he may well have saved my life by doing so. His 999 call helped them locate me much quicker than just the information my Mum would have had, which piece of information is, I think, not a bad one to spread. If you don’t think you’d know what to do in that moment, you insult yourself: your instincts are, 99 times out of 100, enough for you to work out if something isn’t right, and just because it’s mental health, it doesn’t mean you can’t help. If you find someone passed out in the street, you call 999 and get an ambulance there. This is, in many ways, no different. Trust yourself, and the system. It works.

As a follow up, I spent a few days at home being looked after, and I’m now back in Oxford. I’m feeling better, and I know I have some treatment options coming over the next week or two to (hopefully) stop this happening again. The process sounds scary, I can see that, but ultimately, that doesn’t excuse not talking about it. Lots of the time, it happens as it happened to me: people get seen, and sent home because the danger for them has passed, just as they get sent home from A&E once they have their stitches or whatever. Other times, people do get admitted, just as it would happen in a regular hospital, for whatever period of time is necessary to get them better.

My parting shot is that although this might all sound horrid and scary, it doesn’t hurt to know how it works. We need to know about these things in the 21st century. There’s so much to be done for mental health equality and awareness. We can talk about taboo bits of the body that others have and we don’t. I knew about my Grandfather’s prostate cancer, a Church friend’s breast cancer, someone else’s miscarriage, another friend’s encounter with an STD. We all have brains. Why the hell shouldn’t we talk about them when they break, too?


4 thoughts on “White Coats (or not)

  1. Thanks for taking the time to detail this experience, CE, though I have never gone this far down the road, I know how hard it is to talk about depression, especially in front of the (virtual) world. You are brave, and an inspiration to us all.

  2. Pingback: White Coats (again) | C. E. Queripel

  3. Pingback: Staring into the Abyss – C. E. Queripel

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