Memories of Mental Hospitals
NB: References to Electroconvulsive Therapy relate to the period before an anaesthetic and muscle relaxant were administered. ECT is no longer a barbaric treatment, it is safe and has a high success rate for Depression and some other mental illnesses.
1954: Weemac Private Hospital, Sydney
The Specialist, when I told him I could hear ‘voices’, politely said there were none. I wondered why he thought I had come to see him! Anyway, he decided to treat me in this, his hospital, in a Sydney suburb, I can not remember just which, though I suspect it was in Annandale. I was 22 and this was my first experience of a mental hospital.
There were some kind and friendly female nurses, with whom I played cards quite often. The doctor generally spent his mornings giving tablets to out-patients. I just remember one other male inmate, though I imagine there must have been more, who kept to themselves. I do remember being allowed to go for a walk to the local shops down the street to buy cigarettes or sweets for myself.
I do, too well, remember the electric therapy, ‘Shock Treatment’. I had to lie down on the bed in my room and the doctor fitted things I thought were sort of ear-phones over my forehead and gave me a rubber bung to bite on. Electric cords from the gadget on my head lead to a small black box with a lever, near the end of the bed. The Psychiatrist then pulled the lever up and plunged it down again. I just had time to think he seemed to be letting off dynamite, when, trembling with shock, I went unconscious. I can not remember being told what the treatment was or what it was expected to achieve at all, strangely.
There was one incident there too, involving my mother. She came to visit me and found me getting around the place all hunched up. This trouble with my back had happened as I came round out of unconsciousness from the electric therapy. I’d never seen Mum so angry. “What”, she demanded, “were they going to do about this?” At first, nothing. Then my mother insisted on ringing the doctor at his Macquarie St address. She had to fight for the phone, but finally prevailed. Rather reluctantly the doctor suggested that I go around the corner for physiotherapy, to be straightened up again.
Later Mum refused to pay the proffered bill for this, saying it was obviously the Doctor’s treatment that was at fault. Perhaps he thought we were country bumpkins who would readily pay, but he soon found that my mother could assert herself.
All told, I spent a couple of months in this hospital, till the Psychiatrist gave up and certified me insane, to be confined in whatever mental hospital would accept me, true to the laws in those days. Not just a mental illness. You were insane.
1955: The Reception Centre, Watt Street, Newcastle
There was a foreboding about this place where , as I knew, Mad people had to go. And here I was, there! A night in a Padded Cell, before being taken to Morisset to a hospital I had heard mentioned only once before and had forgotten. One certainly has his adventures, when mentally ill or mad!
1955 – 1957 and 1959: Morisset Mental Hospital
As we entered the grounds of the hospital, I saw a sign, ‘Morisset Park’. This reminded me of ‘Mansfield Park’, a novel of Jane Austen’s, which I heard of at university, but hadn’t read. I was sane enough for that thinking.
In between eating, sleeping and more shock treatment, weaving baskets at Occupational Therapy and work helping in the hospital library, time was filled in with a Psychiatrist taking your life history. I thought this would be sure to do some good, but the Doctor didn’t worry about details, such as how low honours in my degree had affected me, or the deaths in my honour year of my Sister-In-Law and favourite old Aunty. The Psychiatrists were mainly interested in my date of birth and education in general. They concluded I must have studied to hard for my years; and it was a fact that I had been promoted in primary school, so that I was a year younger than most of my education peers. The Doctors asked was I a virgin, which I was; but nothing about financial difficulties going through university. Nothing about how my parent’s pockets had been strained or how I worked in the vacations to get some extra money to add to my Teachers’ College Scholarship.
I told how the hallucinations of ‘voices’ had set in badly once I turned 21, though I didn’t remember to tell them at the time of hearing a few voices since 14. Whatever, this giving of life history filled in some time, with which I was pleased, for it at least mad me feel of some interest and importance.
Shyly, you get permission to leave the ward and walk around the grounds. I have a little money, so head for the kiosk. A Nestle’s chocolate, a small packet of Viscount cigarettes and a box of matches soon took all your money. There is a seat near the oval where you could sit, eat and light up. As you are by yourself, you don’t have to give any away and so reigister a bit of pleasure. Other times you walk the grounds complete, with an ice-cream cone, or nothing, for money is scarce.
1960’s, 70’s, 80’s Hunter Hospital, Watt Street, Newcastle
If, with marked recurrence of my illness, I had to go back into hospital for a while, for months or weeks over the last 30 years, what did I do there?
After a few days in pyjamas, I am in street wear again and generally get permission to go for a walk down town. I might buy sweets or fruit at a little shop, or in Hunter Street I might have a milk shake or coffee. Perhaps I’ll buy presents for giving on birthdays or Christmas. Spending seems to compensate a bit, for my troubles. Then it’s back, via the park where I would pause for a smoke, on to the hospital for morning or afternoon cuppa. Through the week, group meetings with quizzes to stimulate the brain, discussion of troubles, exercises, art, relaxation, to music. Perhaps a bar-b-q, picnic or bus trip. In the ward a wireless, TV, record player or piano were available for use in spare time. At night especially, I might write a letter or poem. After a rebalancing of medication, the trouble is somewhat under control again and it’s home again, until next time!
Mary was a nice female patient to whom I couldn’t risk saying she was like Sally. She flared up, thinking I was not religious; but when I explained that I was interested in religion, we soon became friends. We often talked of the purpose of religion in life with a mental illness. She has since married a man in sheltered employment is keeping well. Of course, you never know when mental trouble will recur and may therefore like to be single, rather than accepting the responsibility of marriage and a family of your own, perhaps handing on mental illness too.
1977: Prince Henry Hospital, Sydney
I spent 3 months there, to be adjusted to a lower level of medication, after my father died and I was not well, trying to live alone. The staff were patient and tolerant and meals were very good. There was generally something doing; group meetings, or occupational therapy, games or walks near the sea, or students taking your medical history and, of course, interviews with your Doctor. I was drastically sick for a while, when they took me right off my medication so that they could start me off again on a smaller dosage of tranquilisers, to see if that was all I really needed. As it turned out, I was alright on the new dosage. I remember doing some reading there; but I was very restless for a while. Luckily, I had relatives and friends in Sydney, who would call in to see em. In fact, a niece was a trainee nurse at this hospital and used to call in frequently to see me. I shall never forget the beautiful coastal surrounds of this place, quite like Morisset near Lake Macquarie. These hospitals were in scenic, restful, ideal positions and very many buildings and grounds.
I was sitting alone in the common room listening to some music, when David came in and started dancing. He must have been about 15. We didn’t say anything, but I started clapping in time with the music. He like this and came over next to me and sat down. We exchanged a few friendly words and at later times he would often come to me to talk. When his grandmother came from the country to visit him, he introduced me. She said his father gave him everything and he was spoilt. I said he seemed a likeable lad, but that I had heard him screaming out in the middle of the night. The next day he came to my room, put his arm around me and lead me to the car park. He said he had prayed to God for a car and that it would be there. I had to explain that the cars belonged to people, which he didn’t seem to appreciate at all. Was he kidding me? I didn’t get a reply. Perhaps he couldn’t write, though I remember he was good at drawing comic characters. A strange little friend was David. I wonder whether he is still battling on with mental illness.