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Through the Cracks: Identity, Culture and Deviance

In the second part of this series on mental health, Phill continues his first-hand account of what it means to ‘be yourself’ inside a psychiatric facility.

Through the Cracks: Home... Sweet Home

This feature is Part 2 of a series.

Who am I? In some ways a psychiatric facility is the ideal place to encounter this question, but I personally haven’t broken step with sanity – a statement which you’ll have to take at my word. I maintain that the question is lucid and indeed I asked it long before I was admitted here. Perhaps it is fair to say that it is my protracted inability to answer the question which has delivered me this latest opportunity to again consider my identity. Though this time I’m in a place where identity and culture exist principally as pathology – sources for interpretation, rather than celebrations of individuality.

I am supposed to be sick. I can understand this much from having been admitted to hospital and, before that, through being diagnosed and medicated. But is this who I am? I don’t feel sick, apart from the side effects of medications. Sick, then, to mean somehow disordered, or dysfunctional. What does that look like? Is it supposed to look like anything? If not, then why – how, even – should I ‘be’ that (or myself, if the two are different)?

In here, reality unites all of us who for whatever reason can’t hold our issues at arm’s length to see their place in a bigger picture.

Such surmising is considered unhealthy here. I’ve been told it is not the content of ‘normal‘ thought — that it suggests disorder. I did ask what I should be thinking, but clearly that wasn’t it either, because my query was met with a blank stare and written in my notes. Obviously there are norms here to deviate from. I wonder, then, if the norm is my identity from which my behaviour deviates, or if there are social norms which my identity is deviating from. Perhaps it is both. Or neither.

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Through the Cracks: Home… Sweet Home

What’s it like to be in a mental hospital? In the introduction to this series, Phill offers an empathetic yet unflinching first-hand account, leaving labels, preconceptions and prejudices at the door.

Through the Cracks: Home... Sweet Home

This feature is Part 1 of a series.

My room is a single room with an ensuite bathroom. Newcomers, I’m told, temporarily occupy these rooms until a decision is made regarding our mental state. Soon we will be moved, either to single rooms with shared bathrooms or four-bed dormitory rooms. Another patient, unhappy about being moved into a dormitory where his unsettlingly-vacant neighbour openly masturbates to vocalised violent fantasies involving minors, has told the nurses that I’ve agreed to swap with him. I am asked only once if I have indeed agreed to swap rooms. My terror must be evident; my room remains my home.

My room itself is a curious statement. There is a single bed, much like any cheap motel room but with its comfort hindered further by a thick vinyl bed protector. The walls are a powdery blue and the carpet is a hard-worn, grey-blue loop-pile. The spartan furniture — a desk, bedside table, chair and wardrobe — would have been understated two decades ago. The print which depicts a city scene, somehow aptly, in the rain, is firmly fixed to the wall, its glass removed. There are two impenetrable layers of steel bars on the outside of the building and the floor-to-ceiling windows are no longer able to be opened. All the same, I am glad for the small patch of blue sky I can see through the bars, past the large tree growing in front of my room and out over the tops of the surrounding houses.

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