Monday, 31 March 2014

A shy, frightened teenager at High Royds

The Dark Threads - Jean Davison
Oxfam Bookshop 25 March - partnership event with Leeds Combined Arts

Barbara Kirk writes:
I started reading the book at a time when Channel 4 were showing the series My Mad Fat Diary, based on Rae Earl’s book, and though Rae’s remembrances happened a couple of decades after Jean’s, I felt that nothing much changes.

High Royds Hospital, Menston
There was quite a large turnout at the Oxfam Bookshop.  Someone had asked Jean beforehand if the book was about the textile industry – Jean did grow up in Bradford when the mills were in operation, but this was not about that.  She said that during her time at High Royds Hospital (pictured), she had been a shy, frightened teenager and the names of the doctors, nurses and inmates had been changed in the book for reasons of privacy. Jean reflected on her life in the mid to late 60’s – at 18 she had an office job and went out with friends to coffee bars and discos as a normal teenager, but she was unhappy at home.  The book includes a remembrance of her mother having an affair with a neighbour, and her father being affected by this.  Her brother tormented her a lot too, this fed into the general social anxiety she experienced, and she found night life empty and meaningless.  When she saw her GP, regarding her dysfunctional family, she said she would like to see a psychiatrist, although she really meant she wanted to see a counsellor.  She was sent to High Royds for ‘a rest’, and over four months she was given a number of drugs and ECT treatment which sent her into a downward spiral.  I understood very well about the Valium and Melleril dosages she was put on as I experienced the same blocked feelings on these when I attended Pinderfields Hospital several years ago. 

Jean had a further few months as an out-patient, and over the next five years she thought she was being treated for depression, but eventually on seeing her case notes, she had been labelled as ‘schizophrenic’ by the doctors.  She described the medication she was prescribed as addictive and leaving her in a near-vegetative state.  In her early twenties around the mid-seventies, Jean gradually came off the medication and left home. Jean later asked one of the psychiatrists about improvements in psychiatric treatment in particular in relation to her medication.  Newer drugs were said to be less harmful, but she had her doubts. Jean then spoke about some of her more humorous experiences whilst in High Royds.

At the day hospital, she and her friend Marlene listened to relaxation tapes, but the medication made these redundant to her.  Marlene would go off to sleep and Jean heard her snoring.  Whilst in the Occupational Therapy department after a time of ‘knitting dishcloths’ Jean was eventually asked to work in the library.  There she met Horace, another assistant, from a long-stay ward, who was previously a tramp.  He told Jean and another assistant, Hazel about his life on the streets and that he had been sent to prison after stealing a pork pie from a meat factory.  The staff liked him, though he would impersonate several of them behind their backs.

Horace and Jean did ward rounds, taking the library trolley into ‘locked’ wards.  One woman, Nancy, chatted to them about what she’d read and looked out for more books to read.  She seemed to Jean to be the most aware patient on the ward.   Another patient, Victor, wanted to shake hands with Jean, but he squeezed her hand too hard and a nurse had to restrict him.  The hospital parrot, Popsie, said ‘Oh be joyful!’ to various patients.

At High Royds, Jean wrote on scraps of toilet paper in the toilet, as this was the only way she could get privacy to document what was happening.  Subsequently, when she was living at the YWCA and later a bedsit, she still documented her life, and eventually channelled her experiences into the book.  She had read several similar memoirs beforehand to get a feeling for how it might read.  It took a long while to get the book organised into a reasonable form, as after leaving the hospital, she got into full-time work in an office and attended evening classes.  Eventually Jean achieved a degree from attending creative writing classes.  During the writing process, she would be affected by the memory of what she was documenting, but had to write it all down anyway, she had seen a number of things happening to the patients she felt uncomfortable with, however the inmates at that time were not allowed to have a voice.

Jean also got into ‘truth’ in memoir, and she asked friends to confirm events, while she looked in her own diaries to confirm the accuracy.  She sent the manuscript out to book publishers – some offered encouragement and others didn’t.  Eventually a publishing agent called Maggie Nowak got in touch, but mainstream publishers would not touch it as it wasn’t commercially viable.  Maggie became ill and died, and Jean sent her manuscript to another agent, Hazel Cushion, who said she would publish it, but also said, “and now the hard work begins”.  Jean did most of the publicity work herself, and sent the book to mental health practitioners and universities, eventually getting in touch with Dorothy Rowe, who read the book and advised on it, promoting it on her website.  Jean also had to contact copyright holders on quotes from songs and poems used in the book, especially the poem ‘The Weaver’, by Benjamin Malachai Franklin, printed below.  A copy of the book was sent to relatives of the pastor responsible for the poem in the Bible belt area of America.

The talk was followed by a lively question and answer session where it appeared many people in the audience had experienced life in High Royds Hospital, either as day patients or had undergone longer term treatment. Jean ended with the observation that life in a mental health ward was like society in microcosm, in that everyone was confused and looking for a way out.

The Weaver by Benjamin Malachai Franklin.
Not ‘til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Will God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why
The dark threads are as needful
In The Weaver’s skilful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

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