Saturday, 3 November 2012

memories of peer support in the psychiatric system circa 1984

Looking back to my psychiatric hospitalisations in 1978, 1984 and 2002 it was peer support that got me through the traumatic experience of forced treatment and disempowerment.  And continued on after discharge, helping me on the recovery journey and back to real life.  The experiences of fellow travellers, mostly women, who knew what it felt like to be incarcerated and to be limited by the psychiatric drugs or mental illness label.

I remember in particular the 1984 episode, only one day out of the maternity hospital, after the birth of my third son, and being in another place mentally.  It wasn't a negative experience for me, on the contrary, but for others it was alarming as I wasn't myself.  The fact that I'd had a previous puerperal psychosis would have alerted the doctors and no doubt they were looking out for it.  So, in very quick time, I found myself a voluntary mental patient in Hartwoodhill Hospital, Lanarkshire. Separated from my baby who I'd been breastfeeding. 

I was in an acute psychiatric ward, female sleeping accommodation and mixed gender dining/living spaces.  My clothes locked away in a cupboard and having to wear pyjamas, a few layers of them, for it was late November, winter time, 'Do they know it's Christmas?' by Band Aid on the radio.  Strangers wanting to give me drugs, which I refused then being grabbed and jagged with them. Then when they thought me compliant gave me liquid largactyl, found out later it was chlorpromazine, and finally pills when I could be trusted.

In the ward was a larger than life female patient, a Christian like me, who carried her bible around with her, and who became my peer supporter.  She'd been an inpatient in various psychiatric wards, sometimes for years, as a result of childhood trauma, and I heard her story later on in our friendship.  I attached myself to Mary (not her real name) and went around and about with her, at mealtimes and in the female areaHer strength and experience gave me confidence and protection.  

Because Christmas was coming I managed to get discharged after only a 3wk stay, glad to get out of the mental hospital.  Back to my baby and my two older sons, drugged up with chlorpromazine and like a zombie, as I used to call it.  Facing the challenge of recovering from the psychiatric treatment and getting off the drugs.  Which I managed to do within the year, with the support of family and friends.  At the same time I kept up with Mary who was also out of hospital and back home.

Mary lived on her own in a small flat and I became her friend out in the real world, an opportunity for me to return the peer support, by helping in different ways.  It was still a mutual thing, of giving and receiving, for this is the beauty of peer support.  As experiences are shared, of mental health struggles and withstanding them, even recovering from them, then it is a win-win situation for both people in the peer support relationship.  I've seen nothing else like it in the real world.