Number Six of my top ten, tells the story of my early experiences in Psychiatry. I will spill these beans, for what they're worth, another night.
Thinking about the post provoked a veritable brainstorm of memories and experiences. Amongst them was this. My first 'success story'. Now, I've dramatised it a good bit, and made myself quite the hero. You see the story, in my telling of it, becomes mine. So I shall do what I want with it, thank you very much.
That said, I hope that you like it. It's my longest blog post to date, so I hope it pleases you just enough to reach its conclusion.
I know, half past one is too early to start drinking, but I’ve got nothing better to do these days. I’d polished the house into gleaming perfection before nine thirty this morning. What’s there left to do? Watch repeats of Emmerdale, or listen to the bleating smugness of Loose Women. Frankly I think I’ve done well waiting until now.
Anyway, on an afternoon like today it would be criminal not to enjoy a long drink or two in the garden. It’s looking wonderful. The sun plays in the foliage around our patio and a delicate breeze rustles the leaves of my favourite tree, Betula. I can’t hear the growl of the A1 either, which makes a change. The prevailing north wind normally tumbles the din and fumes right across the fields and over our garden wall.
Sitting down hasn’t come naturally to me. I’ve spent the best part of thirty years as a blur in the peripheral vision of my family. I would whisk up their detritus like a domesticated whirlwind, spinning off to deposit my spoils back into sock drawers and bookcases.
The gin helps though.
It didn’t really change when Thom, my eldest left for University. I still had enough to be doing with Lucy, who was in the midst of a belligerent adolescence.
Now the days just stumble past. I've still got my morning routine however, unchanged through the years. I’m up at seven, bringing tea (strong, no sugar, and a spit of milk) upstairs to leave on his bedside cabinet. I berate myself for leaving last nights dinner remains in piles on the kitchen top and get on with making order from the chaos my family are so expert at making. The problem is that I'm done by half past nine these days. There's just the two of us now, you see.
I knew that this empty nest was coming. My body warned me about it in its final throws of menopause. All it would let me think about for a while was babies. At night I'd dream of them floating and fluttering in me. During the day I could conjure up the milky wet odour of cradle cap on a whim. My stomach would wrench whenever I heard one cry on the TV.
I even asked David one night, without the slightest hint of irony, whether we should have another one. He let out one of his barking laughs, the kind that can silence a restaurant before realising I was serious.
“Dawn, come on sweetness.” He'd said leaning over to me. His face, now craggy still had that teak, solid kindness that I’d fallen in love with so long ago.
“We're in our fifties. Could you imagine what it'd be like having another Lucy when we're seventy?”
He had a point I suppose.
It didn't stop me spending the rest of the evening blubbing under Betula.
Have I already mentioned my tree? I still have the label from when she was a sapling fresh from the garden centre. Apparently the “Downy Birch is a fast growing small tree that prefers moist ground. It can grow up to five meters in seven years.” David bought me her in an effort to apologise.
That was twenty three years ago. The day I was committed;
Late in pregnancy with Thom I was supposed to be blooming; all glistening hair and good skin. My reality was quite different.
It had started innocuously, with a faint tingling of doubt in my chest. However, it became pervasive enough that I began to worry about everything. My abilities to be a mother, how I kept the house, if I could get to the shops and pretty much everything else.
I dismissed it as hormonal daftness at first. But the doubt grew and grew until it stopped everything. Rather than get to the butchers I'd not bother at all. It was too hard to make a meal for myself, so I would go without. Giving in to it spent less of the energy that I had precious little of.
It took me a while to grasp the root cause of it. When I did, it was like a bleak epiphany. I went crashing through my past like an elephant on a rampage. Battered and gouged I ended up slammed against the door behind which I'd locked my Secret for so long.
You see, being pregnant had awoken an old demon in me. It had festered quietly for years. Angered by being denied it lurked, clinging like a monkey onto my back. After I'd opened the door to the secret, it became so bloated that I could hardly move, save to breathe.
It was like each day its fingers gripped deeper and deeper into the skin of my back. I imagined its neck twisting around my shoulders, its fetid mouth suckling from my breast. Voraciously it would drink at my spirit.
David knew nothing of this demon and knew nothing of my Secret. All he saw was me curled up on the sofa. Each evening he would return from work and sit by me. I can remember him stroking my hair. He'd implore me to get up and eat something. For hours he would sit with his warm hands on my stretched stomach feeling his child move, frightened of the effect my sabbatical from sanity was having on his unborn son.
As the days went by his requests became more and more muffled, like he was talking through pillows. Until one day I stopped dead. This was the day that my demon had grown so large that it engulfed me in its belly folds. I hung there, foetus within foetus, stinking amongst its effluent, immobile.
David came home that silent night, to discover me on the hall floor. He had to force the front door open. I was a dead weight, crumpled behind it since he’d left for work in the morning.
I can remember being dragged into the lounge. I saw his face, usually kind and gentle, pulsing red with terrified rage. My thoughts moved so slowly, they like continents. His fury just blurred past me. I hardly noticed being slapped.
I watched the back of his shoes as he stormed from our house. He'd left mud on the carpet.
I don’t know long I lay there, head on the floor. But it was long enough for David to drive into town, request that a psychiatrist see me and bring me back Betula whom he’d bought to apologise, not for hitting me, but for having me committed to Grove End.
David and Dr Hines (as I would later come to know him) lifted me off the floor and into a chair. In front of me was my new tree, skinny like a gymnast in her brown plastic pot. There was something attractive about her. David knew I loved my garden, but there was something specific that drew me to her. Perhaps it was her asymmetry. She had two good branches that stood proud and a third, runt branch that poked stubbornly towards to floor.
David and the doctor were talking behind me.
“I’m concerned for your wife’s well being and that of your child.” Dr Hines told David. “However, I’m unable to treat her catatonia whilst she remains pregnant…”
And so it was that I found myself on Grove End. Acute psychiatric admission ward for the troubled. Having had Thom torn out of me the day before by a surgeon, I lay limp and inert.
After the Cesarean Thom had been placed gently on my chest by a midwife.
Stroking my hair she whispered quietly in my ear “You have a boy.”
I knew that he was on me. I should have been in the midst of a wonderful, spiritual moment. But my secret held me fast. I felt no joy, sadness or guilt. No glimmer of awakening or maternal stirring to drag me from my stupor. So Thom was taken away from me, the Stone Mother, to be nursed as an orphan until I recovered.
Perhaps in these more modern times David would have taken Thom home with him. But neither of us had any close family to help, so perhaps not.
I was detained at the pleasure of Dr Hines for some three months. During which time only one person other than David attempted to make any human contact with me. He was Daniel, the Student Nurse.
He was a slight boy, with long lank hair tied into a ponytail. There were still wisps of puberty about him but he possessed a stillness and an inner calm that was beyond his years. I found him soothing.
Each morning he would sit down next to me and take my hands in his. Sometimes he would talk quietly, and I would listen. He would bend low so our eyes met and he would tell me about the sky and how fast the clouds were blowing across it or the colour of the leaves as they blew from the trees. Other days we would just sit in silence, together.
I rarely thought about Thom.
Over time I found myself looking forward to Daniel’s visits, even though I was always mute and unresponsive when he came. He was solid and trustworthy like David, but yet delicate enough to hold my fragile world together long enough so that I might reach out of myself and make eye contact with him.
One day he didn’t arrive until late afternoon. I’d not long come round from Electro Convulsive Therapy and my head still ticked and buzzed. As usual for the hours following ECT I felt a bit brighter and was sitting up in my bed, sipping a cup of tea given to me by the silent Staff Nurse who stank of fags.
When I saw Daniel enter the dormitory a jolt of happiness and relief made me blurt out “Hello Daniel!”
He stopped dead in his tracks when he heard me, obviously taken aback. I smiled timidly at him. He regarded me for a moment, my first words hanging in the air between us before he smiled back.
“Hi Dawn, you’re looking well.” He commented as he sat down next to my bed.
And so we talked with each other for the first time. I was stiff and clumsy at first, unfamiliar with my voice but I quickly gathered pace. Daniel listened, calm and collected. With nods, frowns and smiles he teased out my story like it was spiders silk.
I told him of falling in love with David when I was sixteen. I told him how we gave in to each other on a ripe summer night in the fields behind my house. And I told him how I hid the sickness from my mother and him, and how I avoided both of them for weeks as my stomach stretched. I told him that David could never have known because he was still a child himself. I would have broken and lost him had he known.
I told him how I ran away to Edinburgh to give birth, alone and terrified in a damp bedsit and how I wept and wept at how beautiful she was, my little girl.
I told him how weak I was from the birth, and how we both starved and froze for two weeks whilst I struggled to decide what to do.
I told Daniel how I left her, my baby, on the steps of the Royal Hospital wrapped in my coat. And I told him how my spirit was torn and mangled as I ran away from her, choking on my bile.
In sharing this story I felt my beast wither and deflate a little, loosening its burden from my frame. I promised Daniel that I would tell David and Dr Hines. He felt that I needed to share and offload some more.
I chose instead, to live with the guilt of lying to him. This private confession had been enough to start my recovery. I had no urge to infect David with my guilt so that we might wallow together under its dead weight.
I’ve continued to carry it on my back, and will do so for the rest of my life, but from that day onwards I’ve been able to starve it of attention. In remembering Daniel, and how he helped me tell my story, the beast clings to my back, cowed and submissive.
Since then Betula, my tree has grown into a beautifully, verdant specimen. Even with her thickened and gnarled runt branch pointing down to the earth she is stunning. During the time she’s grown David and I have had our ups and downs, both ordinary and extraordinary. But we’ve nurtured our children to adulthood and saved enough to live a modestly comfortable retirement.
Now that Lucy’s left home however, I’ve had too much time for myself. Time enough to ruminate and allow the beast to be fed again. I’m not strong enough now to carry it, should it get any larger.
So it’s time to exorcise it and cut it from my back. Time now to do something before it suffocates me again. Perhaps I’m drunk, the bottle of gin looks considerably emptier than it did an hour ago. I don’t care though, something has to be done.
David’s tools are in the back of the garage. It smells damp and unfamiliar in here. I find the biggest saw he has hung up on the rack by the dusty window. I take it and stride out into the sun.
It takes me a good half hour to saw through Betula’s runt branch. I’m dirty and sweating from the exertion. The palm of my right hand has reddened and blistered from gripping the saw so hard.
When I finally cut through the branch it fell to the left, scraping the inside of my thigh causing blood to pour down my leg. No time to dress the wound though.
Spade, I forgot to get the spade. Back to the garage. I find it quickly, where I left it yesterday. Two short planks of wood catch my eye on the shelf above. Perfect. I take them with me too.
It’s hard work digging the tough soil behind the hedge. It’s full of clay and stones. I get on my knees and dig some of them out by hand.
By the time I’ve dug a hole wide and deep enough I’m covered in mud and grime. I’m sweating and the blood has caked hard on my legs.
I drag the branch, bouncing down the patio steps and gouge it over the lawn. I tip it into the hole with a sense of grim satisfaction.
It takes less effort to bury it and I’m done just as David arrives home from golf.
I watch David survey the scene as he gets out of the car. A deep frown furrows his face. He looks first at Betula, noticing immediately how the light shines differently on the patio. He sees his saw on top of the pile of sawdust and follows the gouge along the lawn to the hedge behind which I’m standing.
I watch him walk towards me. I feel oddly calm, resigned even. He gets a shock when he walks through the arch.
It takes him a second or two to absorb what he sees; his wife bloodied and torn, dripping with sweat and stood over a makeshift grave.
He snaps back into life, runs up and holds me by the top of my arms.
“Dawn, what in the world has happened? Are you alright?” He asks.
I wait for a moment, looking into his eyes and remembering our lives together. Remembering how long he’s lived in ignorance, and how long I’ve lived with the Secret.
“She died you know.” I say to David,
“Who did?” He asks, looking nervously at the grave.
“Our first child, on the steps of the hospital”
“Dawn, what are you on about?”
“It was the middle of winter, no baby could survive all night wrapped in a thin coat like that.”
“David, we need to talk....”