Traveling up on the train from Northumberland to Edinburgh to visit my brother in a psychiatric hospital I didn’t know what to expect. I had effectively sectioned my own brother on Millennium New Year’s Eve, not something you choose to have the responsibility for. What had I done – now I was about to see the reality of my actions.
I was feeling a bit anxious, not knowing what to expect. I think maybe I was a bit worried about whether Benjy would be angry with me or blame me for getting him into the hospital. I hadn’t actually called the men in white coats, but I had instigated the process that had got my brother hospitalized for what turned out to be three months.
Benjy had been staying with us over Christmas and had been behaving very strangely. Not sleeping, scribbling nonsense on scraps of paper, saying he was the Messiah, driving out to meet friends around the corner and then coming home several hours later having been directed by God to drive somewhere completely different. I think the high point was when we were watching the film Jumanji when the game board character animals come to life and Benjy was convinced this held some message for the direction his life should take.
We had put Benjy back on the train to Edinburgh and then realized there was something very wrong. Back in Edinburgh, I persuaded Beny to go and see a doctor but he was just sent away and told there was nothing to worry about, go and have a good New Year and come back in a couple of weeks. I then rang the doctor directly and gave him a real earful and told him what Benjy had been like. Luckily I had been warned by a friend who was a psychiatrist that people quite often hide their real mental state from doctors. I cajoled Benjy to go back to the Doctor and told the doctor to get a Psychiatric test done. Next thing I knew Benjy was ringing up from his flat telling me the doctor was on his way to pick him up and take him to the hospital. At this point, we all thought it would just be for a couple of days max.
It was January the second or third and the consultants were coming back on the wards. I was going up to be with Benjy to make sure he was OK and to make sure nothing was going to happen to him without his consent. I have to say there were points now and in the following weeks and months when I cursed our wretched dysfunctional family. The responsibility, after all, wasn’t really sisters, more parents. I get on with my mother but neither of us speaks to my father and Benjy’s relationship to him is strained to say the least. It would have been much easier and nicer to have been a nice supportive sister who could go and visit and then walk away, rather than a sister who felt she held the future state of her brother’s health and mental well being in her hands.
Turning up in Edinburgh on the train felt like those return trips to school on a Sunday evening or the end of a holiday. You suddenly felt very alone, you would rather be back where you felt safe and secure.
It was very hard to get a grip on the hospital and staff to begin with. They seemed really disinterested. Everything felt subdued and had this layer of calm and quiet over it. Almost like being in a dream. It was like your first day at work. Everyone else seemed to know why things were happening, there were unwritten rules. I remember spending a lot of time sitting and waiting, but not knowing what I was waiting for, yet thinking everyone else knew.
Here was I with one of the most important people in my life gone completely bonkers and I had absolutely no idea why and they were like “why don’t you sit here and wait”. Wait for what, what was going to happen? As it turned out I waited for nearly an hour before asking again about my brother and being told he was probably asleep. But I suppose they must see this all the time, its normal for them and they looked like they had lost the ability to empathize with people for whom it was the first time they had ever come in contact with this world.
There was this grouping of chairs at the top of the stairs by the entrance to the ward. A member of staff sat there and patients came and went, read magazines, talked. I realized later that the member of staff was there not for intellectual conversation for the patients, but rather to make sure that none of them tried to escape.
I realise now that the feeling of being in a dream was maybe because most of the patients were on a lot of drugs so were moving slowly, lumbering around, all their movements were delayed, a lot of the conversations made no sense, although other patients seemed to be able to talk animatedly to each other about something that seemed to make no sense to me. It was like walking onto a strange film set, looking in on a strange world, but not being part of it.
I had this real fear that having got my brother into the hospital he would then lose all his rights. The doctors would give him loads of drugs and that would be it – he would be a zombie for the rest of his life and there would be nothing anyone could do to stop them. My worst fears were realized when I arrived early the following morning ready to meet the consultants on their morning rounds and to ask what was going on. I waited hours and no-one came to see me. Finally, I saw my brother walking along the corridor. Apparently, he had just been in to see the doctors. I felt I was invisible.
The doctors came to me smiling, “we don’t think he’s schizophrenic” – was that a good thing? Luckily it was. It was something to do with whether you heard your own voice talking to you in your head or someone else’s. One meant you were schizophrenic and the other meant you were only manic depressive which they said was fairly easy to treat.
I calmed down over the next couple of days and realized that although Benjy wasn’t completely normal as far as the hospital staff was concerned he was able to make decisions about what he wanted to do etc. The only thing which was a bit shocking was that he wasn’t allowed out of the hospital on his own or even with me for a couple of days. Benjy had also been told that if he didn’t take the drugs he would be sectioned and if he tried to leave the hospital he would be sectioned so maybe the idea of freedom was a bit of an illusion.
But I realized that the reason the staff had kept their distance from me initially was that it was up to Benjy to choose what he wanted. Did he want to see me or not, did he want me to be consulted on his care, did he want me to be told what was going on. This reassured me. He wasn’t going to lose all his rights and to an extent, he had a say over what happened to him.
It was a bit weird seeing Benjy in the state he was in. To begin with, I took everything he said and tried to have a reasoned, logical conversation with him. It was quite hard to tell where the madness finished and where the sanity began. He didn’t look mad, apart from walking a bit stiffly because of the drugs. It wasn’t until the doctors said that it was best not to get drawn onto the subjects which wound up my brother, I wouldn’t be able to reason him out of his beliefs – a whole army wouldn’t be able to change the way he thought – that was his illness. They said the best thing, while they were waiting for the drugs to have their effect, was to talk about mundane things, my daughter, the weather etc.
But then when Benjy did ask direct questions, should I lie, should I try to protect him from the truth, i.e. how long would he stay in, how ill was he, what were people saying etc. Again the nurses guided me through this. They said it was easier just to tell him everything and Ben would choose what he wanted to take on board. Otherwise, you could end up in a mess. Slowly I realized I didn’t have to take complete responsibility for my brother. He could still take responsibility for his own actions and words.
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