As a psychology student writing a thesis on group processes I suppose it was only inevitable that I became quite interested in our group in hospital. Eight mothers with serious mental health issues living together must surely result in some friction. But no. In the eight weeks I was there I don’t recall any altercations or even complaints between patients. Remarkable really considering the stressful circumstances. Then again, perhaps we just took it out on the staff.
When I was first admitted I was scared of being out in the public areas. I stayed in my room and avoided other patients (my fearfulness was probably not helped by the community psychiatrist who saw me prior to my admission and told me that the MBU was “not a place he would want to be”, and that it was full of patients who were so far gone that they “would think you were a martian”). At the beginning of my stay there were quite a few younger patients my age, and after a while I began to sit near them. I enjoyed being part of their group, but not necessarily having to contribute to any conversations.
One day I found some knitting needles and a ball of wool. I found knitting really helped with my agitation level. I was knitting away, eavesdropping as usual, when one of the girls asked me where I found the wool. It was one of the first times I actually conversed with another patient. Before I knew what was happening I was teaching her how to knit, and the other patients wanted knitting needles as well. For a few weeks we would spend the evenings knitting and chatting and watching TV. Sometimes nurses would ask us what we were knitting.
“I’m knitting my baby a hat!” said one patient.
“I’m knitting a scarf.” Said another.
“I’m knitting something which shows that we are not perfect because nobody’s perfect, and you can see this has holes so it’s not perfect, because none of us is perfect and that way it’s not a lie….” said another girl.
“I don’t know.” I said.
But all in all we were comfortable with each other and any eccentricities we may or may not have. We were readily accepting of each other.
Then one day one of the girls had a meltdown. I can’t remember the specifics of the situation but there was lots of shouting and crying going on. Eventually two burly security guards were called to control the situation. Predictably, in my delusional and ever egocentric state I dissolved into tears as soon as I saw the guards. “They’ve come for me!” I cried.
There was chaos after that. Everyone was upset. Afterwards most of us went to our rooms and stayed there. The whole weekend was horrible. Nobody talked to each other. Everyone was in a bad mood. I suppose the incident with security reminded us about where we were, and how easily our control could be taken away.
Later on in my stay I was part of a different group of women. But these women were very depressed and rarely talked. As a group we sat silently at the dinner table eating. No knitting here. One day a younger girl arrived. Despite her problems she had the most remarkable sunny personality. People couldn’t help but open up to her. No matter how you presented, or what you looked like, she would come over and have a chat with you. She asked us to join her when she walked to the shops, or baked a cake. We started taking an interest and talking to each other. All it took was one person to make us a group again, rather than eight individuals.
Perhaps, though, it was the stress of the situation that brought us together. Ever been to an exam and suddenly people you haven’t talked to all semester start conversations? Or witnessed a shocking incident in public, and suddenly you are talking to all the strangers around you? It’s cohesion. It’s solidarity. It’s “us” against the exam, the bank robber, the system, the “them”. It’s only natural really.
And you don’t mess with the people who are on your side. You don’t fight with your own team. I felt both joy and sorrow with every discharge from the hospital. Happy that they were feeling better, sad that I wouldn’t see them again (and that I wasn’t the one going home!). I felt apprehension and curiosity with each new admission. Would they be nice? What will they be like? But most of all I felt a sense of comfort that there were others who were going through this too. That I wasn’t alone. And maybe, just maybe, if they had been able to get to a point where they were doing well – perhaps I would be able to as well.