Whitchurch bolts its rusty doors for the last time.

I’ve been full of words about Whitchurch for years and recently I have spouted many words in celebration of its replacement.
Today I find I have no words.
I’ll leave it to Shona, narrator of ‘Word on the Street’:

“The lamppost opposite flickered, lethargic, and beyond the rooftops the copper dome of the Whitchurch hospital water tower burnt a hole in the darkness. Wherever you go in Cardiff, the water tower is there; it doesn’t seem to matter which way you’re facing – and you can be up on a hill looking down or walking along the road looking up – there it is. Leering, dominating the skyline, you can’t touch me, I’m listed. I used to collect pretentious phrases from the television and radio, and I remember some cheesy-grinned gardening presenter talking about ‘borrowed landscapes,’ which really just meant looking at something that isn’t yours. Your neighbour might have a nice tree, for example, which you can see from your decking. The cheesy gardener went so far as to suggest you made an interestingly-shaped hole in your fence in order to borrow a view. But you don’t need to go to any such lengths to include the water tower. You could blow it up and, when the dust settled, it would have rearranged itself and be standing gormless and all the more indestructible for its ordeal. I don’t know where I got the idea from, that the water tower was where they burnt the suicides. Maybe it was an early playground myth. I imagined a trolley going round the wards, collecting the bodies of people who hadn’t been able to face another day, and using them to stoke an everlasting furnace in the tower. At the bottom there was (I imagined) a pile of bones and ashes, and at the top the fumes produced by the boiling blood of people fed on mind-altering substances. Apparently, the purpose of a water tower is to create pressure in the taps.”






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Radio Wales – ‘Good Morning Wales’ on 17 March 2016. The interview is 50.18 minutes in.

Fresh air on demand!

Fresh air on demand!

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Today is one of those days you think will never actually come. But it is here and Hafan y Coed has been officially opened. This is the transcript of what I said at the opening:

A few years ago I heard a presenter on local radio make a joke about loonies. Then he said, ‘Ha! I hope no-one’s listening in Whitchurch … actually do they have radios in Whitchurch?’ He put a song on then and that was that.
I think we’d all like to educate him … but it shows just how scary that building is even at a distance. It looks like an old-fashioned ‘loony bin’.
Inside, it’s layered with a century of grime and rusty bolted doors. Staff have been going upwards on a downwards escalator trying to make it into a hospital rather than a haunted house.

And now, here, at long, long last, we have a replacement. Hafan y Coed is clean, fresh, light and airy. At times of mental distress, patients will find physical comfort.
Compassion has gone into the design of the building and it shows that people care. That you will be looked after, cared for, actively engaged with. Psychiatric patients needn’t feel invisible or inconvenient.
The design means patients can go outside for fresh air whenever they need it – without waiting hours for a member of staff to be available. In fact the times when you least feel like going for a walk are the times when you most need to, so the added barrier of asking and waiting can mean you get very stuck. Here, it can work the other way round: staff can encourage you to go outside. Fresh air. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to wellbeing. If you are stuck inside your head with confusing thoughts then being stuck inside makes you worse.

And here, the food will be served in a separate room so that the ward will not be permeated with the smell of a million meals.

Hafan y Coed has been designed to protect dignity and privacy. There is a system for unobtrusive night checks. There is a system to prevent patients going into other bedrooms. Here, you can feel safe.

Jane Hutt A.M said at the Art opening that this must be “more than just a building”. This powerful new start is a chance to build a place of optimism and strength, and staff and patients could really respond to that.

For those of us with mental illness, Cardiff could now be a very hopeful place to be. Hafan y Coed could be an asylum in the full sense of the word. On arrival here, instead of feeling that you have hit rock bottom, you could feel that you have found the way up.

Simone Joslyn and I at the  opening.

Simone Joslyn and I at the opening.

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The government provides a variety of services in return for our taxes. There are words to describe us when we make use of these: when we walk along a pavement we are ‘pedestrians’, when we drive (chance would be a fine thing) we are ‘motorists’ (a sweetly archaic term for the chaos that ensues), when we put out our bins we are ‘householders’ or ‘tenants’. Energy providers have ‘consumers’. Museums have ‘visitors’. GPs have ‘patients’. Teachers have ‘students’. Businesses have ‘customers’ and ‘clients’. So why on earth do we have the vague, covert term ‘Service Users’ for people having help with their mental health? People with Bipolar, Schizophrenia ‘etc’ are labelled Service Users – as are people addicted to evil substances.
When I was at school (being a ‘pupil’) the word ‘user’ was a derogatory term for someone who became a false friend or girlfriend to someone they didn’t really like. ‘Use’ and ‘used up’ are not particularly positive words.
Language evolves, sometimes rapidly and sometimes playing catch-up. ‘Service User’ was presumably promoted as a more dignified term than ‘mental patient’. ‘Loony bin’ became ‘Mental hospital’ which is gradually becoming ‘Psychiatric hospital’. It’s time for ‘Service User’ to evolve, to go the same way as ‘mental patient’. It is time for a more robust, straightforward word. Actually, there is one: it’s ‘patient’. People with illnesses are patients.
Like many people, I am mercurial. During the course of a day, I can be a ‘wife and mother’ (part of a ‘hard-working family’), a ‘writer’, a ‘teacher’, a ‘householder’ and so on … and if I have an appointment with a doctor of any type then I am also a ‘patient’. I am not a ‘Service User’; I am a person supported by health professionals. Aren’t we all?

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I’m glad Professor Ian Jones got the BBC gig advising Eastenders on the postpartum psychosis storyline. He’s a lovely man and a key expert.
I’ve been moved by the loyalty shown by the character of Martin, the friendship of the character of Sonya and the kind professionalism of the characters of the doctor and nurse.
I’m more cynical about the omnipresence of that excellent nurse who supports Stacey and her visitors. Is she never in the office doing paperwork or handover? Is she never replaced by a lazy, under-trained nursing assistant? Does she never go home? And the doctor is around a lot, too … the same doctor who came down to A&E when Stacey first presented, who admitted her to the unit and is regularly on that unit…Walford is an exemplary NHS Trust.
I am deeply envious of the clean, pleasant environment of the unit. See this post… which will be updated on March 17th when I will post the speech I am giving at the opening of Hafan y Coed.

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I have enormous respect for everyone involved in this programme. The women, their partners and parents, the doctor, nurses and BBC producers have created something new and important: an honest, sensitive and informative portrayal of mental illness and recovery. This article explains the question of consent. The programme is ethically water-tight and this, paradoxically, has facilitated a deeper, up-close rendering than previous documentaries have achieved. These women have shared on behalf of the rest of us what has usually been hushed up. Now people who have not had to go through this traumatic experience can learn about it. The programme went beyond the safety of the generic and addressed the scary specifics. For example, Hannah broke a jar of baby food so that she could cut her neck with the glass and Jenny said she ‘could be prime minister by the end of the day’.
Dr Gregoire is a role model for his colleagues and a key teacher and journalist of public health. His compassionate professionalism is striking throughout the programme and his article.
The partners and parents in this programme supported the women lovingly and bravely whilst managing their own fear. Embarrassment kindles fear and that is why we must chip away at the lonely secrecy of mental illness. Maybe when you leave your loved one in a mental health facility and go to work and your colleague says, ‘How is she?’, you won’t have to speak in a whisper or brush off the question. You might feel able to say, ‘She’s so ill she sometimes wants to die but she knows she has to stay alive for us’ or ‘She thinks there are spiders all over the walls’ – just as you can talk about breasts and bowels and chemotherapy now. Stiff upper lip and Mind over matter could become obsolete phrases.

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Not long ago, a group of patients were shown around the site of the new psychiatric hospital at Llandough, which is planned to replace Whitchurch and the Llanfair unit in April.
It is full of light and everyone can go outside – this is key.
The bedrooms have toilets and sinks attached. There are plenty of rooms for activities and meetings.
The important job now is to ensure staff are trained and supported to do their jobs effectively and imaginatively. And to cut down the barriers to patients accessing the art or physio that will hopefully be taking place in all the nice rooms.
And it was fun dressing up as a builder.


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Come and see me at the Hay Festival this Sunday.


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This post is not about any individual. All the doctors and nurses involved were professional and kind in their work.

A few weeks back, I was incoherent with a Bipolar episode. I made my way to the GP surgery and looked at the receptionist, who put me in a little room and went to get a doctor. GPs can’t admit people to psych wards, so he rang the Community Mental Health Team. My Community Psychiatric Nurse came along with a colleague. Community Psychiatric Teams also cannot admit people to psych wards, so they took me to the assessment place to meet with the aptly named Crisis Team. These 2 nurses waited several hours with me for the Crisis Team, during which time I became worse and they had to cancel their appointments, miss their lunch and cram the following week’s diary with all the stuff they’d had to put off whilst waiting with me. By the time the Crisis Team arrived, I had been getting worse for about 9 hours since first presenting myself as someone needing emergency help. I was admitted late in the evening. A few days later, I woke up and realised I wasn’t mad anymore which was a huge relief. I have, however, been in a depression ever since.

This week, a bacterial infection took advantage of a virus that had taken advantage of a low immune system. I went to casualty with obvious physical symptoms. Within 10 minutes of arriving, I was attached to an ECG machine, being given fluids and then IV penicillin and pain relief and nurses had installed a fan to bring my temperature down.
See how few words that took in comparison to the first anecdote?

It’s not news but we need to keep pointing it out until the system is improved.

As an afterthought: whilst I have been in bed immobilised with depression, I have been frustrated about my lack of ability to do things, embarrassed, ashamed, guilty and with falling self-esteem. In bed weak with infection, I have been frustrated about my lack of ability to do things.

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I was having too much fun. Pride comes before a fall. Etcetera.

I worked so hard on exercises to make my lower back flexible for my backswing that my muscles seized up and one day I had no backswing. I was going backwards metaphorically with going backwards literally, physically.

Right at the end of the class I had one last try and I threw my body up high at the front of the swing, ready to give a good strong backswing on the swing back. That’s the last thing I remember until I was crumpling onto the mat, and that I remember in slow motion. I remember I had almost stopped moving, the fall had finished, and then I rolled onto my right shoulder. Very slowly and very heavily. I was wearing a belt with a harness so the teacher had pulled and slowed the fall. Apparently when my hands came off the bar – and the skin on my palms tore thickly –  I somersaulted backwards in the air, which is a trick a long way ahead of where I am trick-wise.

If I could turn back time, I’d be less insistent with my vertebrae and let them develop flexibility a bit more gradually. Failing that, I’d concentrate on holding on during that last swing and not fall off. Failing that, I’d stop the slow motion crumple just before the heavy roll onto my right shoulder. Unfortunately, I can’t turn back time, which leaves me with an appointment card for a Shoulder Clinic and my husband putting my hair up in the morning. I didn’t know it was so hard to put people’s hair into scruffy little ponytails, even for an ex-Scout patrol leader with a Knots Badge who became a doctor who does minor surgery. It’s a little window into dependence, having people do things like that for you. My left arm is washing my hair, putting on t-shirts and cardigans while I make strange twisty shapes underneath, cooking, hoovering and so on, but it cannot do a ponytail on its own. And when you’re cross and used to having your hair up, it feels very important.

Much more important, though, is that it could be weeks – months? – before I can lift my arm above my head convincingly enough to get back on the platform. And then, in terms of strength, I will be starting not from the Square One my grandmother has always had so much disdain for, but from a path leading up to that square. But I won’t be grounded forever, I will fly again!20150514_184555

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