Recovering from a spell in hospital

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The Independent Online
THEY had taken the handcuffs off. She was frog-marched to a flight of dark stairs by four male nurses, three female nurses and a ward sister. They were marching her up, but it felt, she says, like going down into a pit, like walking into the night.

Next she was taken into a bathroom and made to strip even to the extent of removing her tampon. She was forcibly placed in the bath and held while a bucket of water was poured over her hair.

Lifted out, she was put in an untearable gown in a cell with a mattress, two canvas blankets and a cardboard pot. 'Don't knock,' they said, and slammed the door. It was in this fashion that 12 years ago, she arrived at Broadmoor.

The future of that institution is, like that of all special hospitals, now in dispute, following Sir Louis Blom-Cooper's report this week. This woman's story, which is not untypical of the women's side of these so-called hospitals, illuminates why.

For her crime, she would probably have received a 10-year prison sentence and served around seven. As it was, she was to spend 11 years incarcerated in this place: only last year was she allowed out, by this time in her early thirties. Since then, she has built a new life and wishes to remain nameless to protect it. Her surname is, anyway, debatable. The product of a 15-year-old Irish Catholic girl's one- night fling, she had been privately adopted as a baby by an upper-middle class woman in her sixties whose husband had recently died. 'I was every kind of substitute. I had no identity,' she says.

Everything she did seemed to be wrong. Her adopted mother forbade her to make friends at school. At home, she says, there was sexual abuse. At 12, she began to misbehave, to shoplift, to smash windows, to beat her adopted mother. At 14, she was taken into care. She began drinking heavily and taking drugs. By 16, she was living in a bed-sit, keeping herself but still unable to make friends.

By 17, she was, inevitably, in court - for theft and forgery of Giro cheques. 'They let me off on probation,' she says. 'Even though I'd said to my probation officer, I want to go away, I can't cope with life.' Then came a three-week bout of heavy drinking. 'I thought: if I kill her I'll go to prison, but at least I'll be free. I went round with a monkey wrench in my pocket, and sat down and said: 'You'll be pleased to hear by the end of today everything will be all right and I'll be inside.' She went off to make a cup of tea, typically English, and I knew I had to act before I lost the nerve, so I went into a room in her house where an elderly friend of hers lived and attacked her instead.'

Her victim had 40 stitches in her head but lived. The judge sent her assailant to a special hospital. 'That was my biggest resentment,' she says. 'They still didn't take me seriously. They made excuses for my crime. I was female, I was gay, my background was upper-middle class. So I had to be sick. I couldn't be bad. I wanted to go to prison, do my time, but no.' And so she came to Broadmoor.

As she lay in the strip cell on her first day, a nurse arrived. A boot waved above her nose. 'We have ways to deal with you in here,' said the boot's owner. Threats, rather than actual brutality, set the tone. No one, she says, was injured unless they were being violent themselves.

'That wasn't the problem. There were some very good nurses, and a small nasty minority, as anywhere,' she says. 'The real trouble lay in the system.' That

system, in her experience, was not set up to find and treat the cause of her violence and anger, but geared to repress and

control their results, with drugs and with seclusion, a form of 'treatment' that

the Blom-Cooper inquiry recommends should be phased out.

'In Broadmoor, if you laugh they think you're too active, and if you sit down it's: 'You're depressed. What are you planning to do?' You can't show feelings. I was banged up for the first time because I'd kicked a wall. I was put in a seclusion cell. There was nothing to write with, no one to talk to - how do you express your feelings? Where is the emotional pain going to go?'

Her next action is a common one among women in special hospitals. She began to mutilate herself. 'I cut my arms, my chest. The emotional pain is so frightening - if you can replace that with physical pain, that's a release.' The staff's response was more control: more restraint, more medication. And so the cycle went on for a decade.

Like other women patients, many of whom have been sexually abused as children, she was made, as part of her 'treatment', to 'socialise with men'. In Broadmoor, of course, the supply of eligible men was limited. 'So they placed us in a little disco at 4.30pm for a nice bit of socialising with a lot of sex offenders,' she says. Such discos are no longer forced on patients, but even in the last months Broadmoor was still trying to feminise her, to make her wear nice skirts instead of trousers.

The institution had, in short, taken over much of her adoptive mother's old role. Her response was more rebellion, more anger, more self-mutilation. The only thing that kept her alive, she says, was the thought that if she killed herself, 'they' would have won. Then a new thought struck.

'If I killed a member of staff, then I thought at least I'd have a chance of being sent to prison. One week, I was banged up in seclusion and I stopped up the peep hole, so they fetched male nurses to get me out. I leapt on them. I flew out, I was going to smash some glass and cut their throats.'

She failed. Luckily, a new consultant psychiatrist had recently came to Broadmoor called Dr Ghosh. 'She was the first person who ever believed in me. She listened to me. She didn't put me on medication. She said: calm down.' Dr Ghosh took her off the drugs to which she was now addicted. She talked to her about her problems, her family. 'I told her I didn't want to come out, I didn't have a family. Dr Ghosh gave me the strength to come out.'

Six months later, she was out. 'I didn't believe it until they dropped me at the hostel and I saw the car pull away. My recovery started then, not in Broadmoor, just being treated as a normal person, being allowed to make mistakes. I joined Narcotics Anonymous. It's been the biggest change in my life. I've got friends now I can ring at three in the morning if I need to.

'I can live with myself. A lot of it was self-hatred, I think. I'm doing a social sciences degree, I've joined a choir, I've got a car, a flat, I'm working. In Broadmoor, I was in a coma. All you could do in there to survive was to switch off, or you were broken. Things improved in the last year or so, but I don't think Broadmoor can ever really change.'

Women in Special Hospitals (Wish) is a charity offering help. 25 Horsell Road, London N5 1XL (071-700 6684).