Asylum…

Argyll and Bute hospital 3

 

Something I wrote for a Greenbelt event a couple of years ago- which came back to me recently when discussing brokenness. Originally it was written to make comparisons between organised church and psychiatric care.

There was a concern in the land

In every town the roads were lined with beggars

There were homeless orphans and widows cast out onto the streets

Lunatics were stoned by children

And melancholics drowned their sorrows with gin

The pain of it all was in the middle of us

The Jesus in the least of these

Was weeping

 

So the good people gathered

“What is needed” they said “Is asylum.”

A safe home where broken people can live out their lives in care-

Protected from all of the mess of life,

Fed and warm and watered.

So money was gathered

Stones were shaped and raised

Staff were retained and clothed in starched clothing

-The heavy doors were opened wide in welcome

 

And so they came- the halt, the sick, the lame

The motherless and the pregnant child

All those broken by worry and grief

The shakers and the mutterers

All the awkward squad

The outsiders now came inside

They were home at last

old painting, Argyll and Bute hospital grounds

 

It went well for a while

All was orderly and planned

Starved frames filled out

Songs were sung again in the entertainment hall

Gardens were laid and tended

Sheets danced in the evening sunlight

And a bell rang out to warn of the dowsing of night candles

 

But time passed, and shadows fell

Budgets were tight, and the paint peeled on windows

The good folk who had once been so generous had other calls on their coin

A few still visited on feast days but for the most part

Out of sight became out of mind.

uniformed building

 

And there was trouble

The awkward squad was still awkward

The asylum split into ‘us’ and ‘them’

 

‘We’ had roles- uniforms and clipboards, rotas and registers

Big bunches of keys danced at our belts

We had dreams- of advancement, romance and families

We had homes away from this home

 

‘They’ stood the other side of our desks

Dirty and lacking in motivation

Ungrateful and manipulative

Un co-operative with our assessments

Lacking insight into the nature of their dysfunction.

They had ceased to be like us

Rather, they lived out regulated half-lives

They ceased to be flesh

And became instead a collection of paper

In manila folders

listening

Despite all the material provision- something was missing

Despite all the person centred plans, the person was not at the centre

Despite the close press of humanity, there was no family

Despite all the risk assessments, there was no adventure

Despite all the planned activity, there is no purpose

Despite the safety of the high walls, I am still destroyed

 

So it was that care became captivity

Individuals became invisible

And home became hollow

And toxic

While Jesus in the least of these

Was weeping

locked door

Square world…

I went for a meeting today in a posh new hospital. Everything squeaked as if in disapproval of my polluting presence.

I was there to chair a meeting about one of the patients, who had been transferred there recently to receive more specialist care. She had previously spent most of the last 40 years of her life as a resident of the local psychiatric hospital. Things went wrong after the death of her husband, and she somehow lost herself in the grief of it all. The whole range of psychiatric science was rolled out for her benefit – drugs that greyed her vision, Electric Shock Therapy that blew holes in her memory then finally psycho surgery in an attempt to cut grief out of her brain with a scalpel.

And here she remains – toothless, but given to scratching. Occasionally abusive but still with sense of humour intact.

She used to be a worker, a wife, a mother. She used to go on picnics and loved to dance. She enjoyed holidays and gossiped with her friends about the comings and goings of the village.

But that was 40 years ago.

Today we met to discuss her future care – a likely move to a specialist nursing home, and the legal issues around that given her lack of capacity to understand or to give consent.

But in the middle of this, she looked at the ceiling and said;

I hate those squares. Everything is square in here. Put me outside next to the beech hedge. Just put me outside.

And I looked out at the brown beech hedge, with dry leaves still rattling on the close cropped branches.

Through the square window.

And I wanted to wheel her out there, and sit her under the winter sky, wind waving her long grey hair in a curve of protest against all those bloody awful squares.

Asylum…

Part of our worship event @ Greenbelt festival-

 

There was a concern in the land

In every town the roads were lined with beggars

There were homeless orphans and widows cast out onto the streets

The lunatics were stoned by children

And melancholics drowned their sorrows with gin

The mess of it all was in the middle of us

The Jesus in the least of these

Was weeping

He had no home amongst us

 

So the good people gathered

“What is needed” they said “Is asylum.”

A safe home where broken people can live out their lives in care-

Protected from all of the mess of life

Fed and warm and watered.

So money was gathered

Stones were shaped and raised

Staff were retained and clothed in crisp starched clothing

And the heavy doors were opened wide in welcome

 

And so they came- the halt, the sick, the lame

The motherless and the pregnant child

All those broken by worry and grief

The shakers and the mutterers

All the awkward squad

The outsiders now came inside

They were home at last

 

It went well for a while

All was orderly and planned

Starved frames filled out

Songs were sung again in the entertainment hall

Gardens were laid and tended

Sheets danced in the evening sunlight

And a bell rang out to warn of the dowsing of night candles

 

But time passed, and shadows fell

Budgets were tight, and the paint peeled on windows

The good folk who had once been so generous had other calls on their coin

A few still visited on feast days but for the most part

Out of sight became out of mind.

 

And there was trouble

The awkward squad was still awkward

The asylum split into‘us’ and ‘them’

 

‘We’ had roles- uniforms and clipboards, rotas and registers

Big bunches of keys danced at our belts

We had dreams- of advancement, romance and families

We had homes away from this home

 

‘They’ stood the other side of our desks

Dirty and lacking in motivation

Ungrateful and manipulative

Un co-operative with our assessments

Lacking insight into the nature of their dysfunction.

They had ceased to be like us

Rather, they lived out regulated half-lives

They ceased to be flesh

And became instead a collection of paper

In manila folders

 

Despite all the material provision- something was missing

Despite all the person centred plans, the person was not at the centre

Despite the close press of humanity, there was no family

Despite all the risk assessments, there was no adventure

Despite all the planned activity, there is no purpose

Despite the safety of the high walls, I am still destroyed

 

So it was that care became captivity

Individuals became invisible

And home became hollow

And toxic

And Jesus in the least of these

Was weeping

 

 

 

 

The end of an old asylum…

Argyll and Bute hospital is at the end of its useful life. Soon it will be ‘reprovisioned’.

Hanging in the old reception area is a painting of the hospital from what I imagine is about 100 years ago. It shows a rear view of the hospital, at a time when it was a permanent home for hundreds of patients. If they could only tell their stories. I assume the painting was done by a patient at the hospital- it has a naive feel about it that is very affecting.

I took my camera today and took some shots between meetings. I wanted to record something of a visual monument to one of the last of a breed of failed social/medical experiments known as the ‘asylum’. By any measure, it was a desperately failed experiment. In the name of humanitarian treatment of the mentally ill, we removed people from society, and warehoused them in institutions. Even when these were well run (and the stories of abuse that was handed out by some staff are appalling) then the end result was that people were lost. They stopped being brothers, sisters, children, bakers, lovers- and became- patients.

Here are some of the shots (click to enlarge.)

Asylums, churches, and the retreat of the institution…

I was in Lochgilphead today, with a series of meetings- including one at Argyll and Bute hospital. The building dates from 1862, and is one of the very few Victorian ‘lunatic asylums’ still in use today.

Lovely old building it might be, but it is a total anachronism. Built to house hundreds of patients from all over this area, only a handful of the original wards are still open, whilst the cost of maintaining the structure eats away at resources desperately needed by community services more fitted to present day understanding of treatment and support of people experiencing mental ill health. It is hoped that a new purpose built facility will (hopefully) replace it soon…

It stopped raining today, and I decided to take the camera into the woods at lunchtime.

I walked into a forest that until recently was managed by a woodland project run by patients from the hospital. The project has lost it’s funding now, as patient numbers have dwindled, and as segregated projects like this are now regarded as a potential obstacle to recovery, as they are not supportive of integration back into the community.

It was lovely though…

The subject I was chewing on as I walked, was the huge change that this areas has seen. The hospital was built as a means of providing what was regarded as much needed humane treatment of ‘lunatics’ and ‘idiots’. These very terms are now insulting and offensive, but at the time the hospital was progressive, impressive and planned to ‘scientific’ principles.

Even the trees I walked in were planted as a means of sheltering (or perhaps hiding) the hospital.

Evidence of the attempts to use the forest as a resource were everywhere- the notices describing different trees, the carvings, the rough wooden tables- and this…

I think it was built to make the best of a view, but in effect, it stands as a temporary monument to a rather meaningless industry.

A bridge into nowhere.

The people that made it are no longer in the hospital. I hope and pray their lives are rich and meaningful, and that the time spent working in these woods is a happy memory. But the fact is, such forms of occupational therapy are no longer part of common psychiatric practice.

And I thought of that other late Victorian institution that I am so familiar with- the modern protestant church. The buildings that were the places of the Protestant institutions still adorn all of our towns and cities- many are lovely too. Most of them are just as empty as this old hospital.

The parallels are pretty obvious. What both offered was good- perhaps even the best of what was possible in their day. They were raised with such energy and optimism. They changed the landscape of their times.

But as time passed, the rituals and routines that they followed became less and less in tune with the wider world. In some case, it was even toxic- what started off as an enclave of hope, became a backwater, where lives stagnated. Escaping such situations can be so very hard…

And what industry there is continued to look towards the institution. It was contained within the stone walls and the boundary fences.

And bridges were built to nowhere.

There will be a new hospital soon, which will not be perfect- there will be more compromises, more challenges- but we hope that the focus will shift to outside these old stone walls and into our homes and houses- where real lives are situated.

I kind of hope the same for church…