It was a shock to the system, the day I started on a Psycho geriatric ward in the asylum I was to call home. I was nineteen, green as grass and shocked to see old, demented people left to scream and shit themselves.
In the midst of this horror, the regular staff could do no more than objectify these wretched beings as lunatics, doing otherwise would mean they drowned in the pool of human despair that they presided over.
So for the two months I was there, I got my head down and learned what I could of my trade, towed the line and pretended not to give a damn.
(I went back, ten years after the hospital closed and took this photo of the ward dormitory. You get the picture? More here.)
One ancient patient called Alice broke my heart. She had long white hair, a hook nose and skin so wizened it could have rustled like paper. She was a spot of a woman, perhaps four feet tall, but it was difficult to tell with any accuracy, as she spent her days bent over with her face no more than a foot from the floor.
She would shuffle from the moment she woke, mumbling and singing and examining the bottoms of doors with creaking arthritic fingers that shook with a tardive dyskinesic tremor caused by decades of sweet, cloying largactil.
You see, Alice had spent her entire adult life in the asylum. According to some of the older staff, Alice had been as mad as a fish.
One morning, as we were sat having a coffee break, Alice wandered up and came across my feet. She began to explore them with her trembling hands so I bent down to hold them and made eye contact with her. Given her posture, this was something she could rarely have experienced.
I don't remember saying anything to her, nor getting any response, but I'll never forget that she clambered up on to my lap, put her arms around my neck and nuzzled her face into my chest before falling asleep.
The sheer humanity of this gesture overwhelmed me. What responsibility had I for the childwoman in my arms? What responsibility had we - the givers and takers of humanity - to see that these people in our charge had needs other than physical? Yet to open ourselves up, face the brutal truth and to genuinely care could tear us to pieces.
Of course, like any good student, I retreated hastily to the office as soon as I could. What better way to make sense of Alice than four creaking volumes of manila psychiatric notes that went back to 1915?
I discovered that Alice had been given a myriad labels - Imbecile, Dementia Praecox, Mania to name but a few. Simple Schizophrenia had stuck with her since the 60's, until Alice was old enough for the Dementia label.
However, it was in the earliest volume that I discovered that Alice came to the asylum not because she was mad, but because she was "eccentric" and "rampantly promiscuous". From what I could garner, her parents despaired of their wayward daughter having fun with her new found womanhood and had her committed to the hospital.
So why, according to the old lags, had Alice had been so exquisitely insane? Perhaps going mad was the only sane response left to the young Alice, faced with the insane world that she found herself in.