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“My hospital room takes minimalism to a whole new level… Marie Kondo would be impressed.”

A week in bedlam: My time in a mental health unit

Ben Frobisher* on getting sick, getting sick of everything, wanting to go to heaven – and coming back to earth.

“What the ‘Chronics’ are – or most of us – are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.” – Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Day 1: Tuesday

I am playing chess with a mummified man. He is black, I am white. We are seated in a locked psychiatric unit in one of the country’s largest public hospitals, and we are locked in a friendly game of war.

Marlon, my competitor, is here for the same reason as me. He tried to kill himself. As he confessed to me one morning: “I drove my car at 80km an hour into a tree. It was the stupidest idea I’ve ever had. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

I guess neither of us do, which is why we are here.

Marlon carries the physical scars of his mistake. All I can see of his head are strands of oily blond hair hanging down over his drooping, bloodshot eyes. Everything else is bandaged, even his nose, which appears hammered flat. He says 10 metal plates hold his skull together.

He is tall and gangly, painting a slightly frightening figure – a sort of pagan effigy. His arms and hands are shattered, supported by two blue paddles that hold everything in place. This makes it impossible for him to feed or toilet himself.

“I’m not popular with the nurses,” he says in a Californian drawl, not lost after living here for 20 years. “I’m high maintenance. No one wants to spoon-feed me or wipe my bum.”

There is a pause as I process what he’s just said. He claims my bishop.

He has movement in a couple of fingers, which allows him to meekly shake my hand or move a chess piece. I assist when he knocks over some of the taller pieces.

“This will take years to fix,” he says, and I wonder if he’s referring to the game. “If it’s fixable at all.”

He is a builder by trade, so this accident will have long-term financial consequences. He wears the “loony bin” wardrobe, which a few patients don like a badge of honour: washed-out, shapeless, dusk-coloured flannelettes, freely available by the nurses’ station.

The ward is on the second floor, an adjunct to the main hospital. To enter, you submit to a body and bag search by a private security guard on the ground floor. Once admitted, your money, watch and any toiletries deemed dangerous are confiscated – for return when you leave. This includes shampoo and conditioner. I can keep my phone. 

Some patients like me are allowed leave each day, anything between one hour and three. Others, wards of the state, are not provided the same freedom.

This clearly disturbs some patients. A man dressed for the North Pole, sporting a red pompom hat and an unkempt white beard (“Eskimo Joe”, I nickname him), asks if this is prison. “No mate, this is hospital,” I answer.

“Oh,” he says, disappointedly. He scratches his beard and tiny icicles of hair fall out. “Feels like prison.”

There are others, about 20 patients across the entire ward, staffed by small rosters of nurses, each assigned a specific patient. Their main tasks are to dispense medication and conduct quarter-hourly checks on patients. Through the night, I am aware of a torchlight flashing through the small window of my door. It feels like prison.

The room takes minimalism to a whole new level. It is bright white and stark, except for a built-in shelving unit and a bed the size of an ironing board. Marie Kondo would be impressed.

I send a photo of the room to my best friend. “This is what it comes down to after 60 years on Earth. A bed by a window that lets through a slither of sun.”

I pick up my book, Elvis Costello’s autobiography Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, and try to make myself comfortable on the hard-plastic mattress and latex pillows.

I am 60, educated, eloquent, in the top 4% of salary earners. I have made music, written books, done a thousand things. Strangely, I have also been a psych nurse, doing a stint in the now-extinguished Carrington Mental Hospital, in Auckland’s Pt Chevalier, where electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) was the “order of the day”.

This is a place I never expected to be. This is my “checkmate”.

Day 2: Wednesday

I wake up to the sound of someone vomiting in the bathroom adjacent to my room. This is followed by a wailing that sounds part pain, part grief. A long, slow, excremental noise follows. That’s what this place is: a long cacophony of human excremental noises.

A bouncy Irish nurse, Trudy, takes my pulse and blood pressure, then hands me a tiny plastic thimble of multi-coloured pills – antidepressants, painkillers, blood thinners, a drug called acamprosate – which will stop my cravings for alcohol (even though I don’t have any). They wait for me to take each in turn. I don’t really know what anything is…

Breakfast is in the main room, served from a dispensary by an elderly woman. The scene is reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a favourite book of my university youth.

A man wearing tie-dyed pants and giant, bulbous sunglasses reminiscent of Bono is stationed in the middle of the dayroom singing the entire repertoire from The Rocky Horror Picture Show on the communal guitar.

“She’s just a sweet transvestite
from transsexual

I know the writer, Kiwi Richard O’Brien. If only he could see me now.

When I clap, “Bono” shoots me a menacing glare.

A woman who reminds me of a jolly 1950s tea lady is asking everybody how they are. “Did you have a good sleep?” she asks everyone in her orbit. “Isn’t it a lovely day?” Minutes later, she has exploded in a long expletive-ridden rant. “Do I have to do everything around here, you pack of fucking c**ts?” she bellows. “Pack of useless bastards.” A cleaner goes to her aid.

A heavily medicated man wanders from the TV to the nurses’ station, then back to the TV again, then repeats the round-trip. His face is ravaged by welts that are covered in a thick layer of white antiseptic cream.

I’m questioning whether I am Randle McMurphy, the protagonist in Cuckoo’s Nest, and the only sane person here. I am here voluntarily and can leave at any time, so I must be? But let’s not fool ourselves (I’ve been doing that too long), I am not sane. Anyone who wants to put a rope around their neck and hang themselves from a pre-selected gumtree in the local dog-park with a carefully purchased rope is not sane. Why would I want to leave a beautiful wife and two young children in such a brutal, executional way if I were sane?

I’ll tell you why: I just got sick. Very, very sick. And the simple truth is, I just got sick of everything:

  • Debts – old and new, and the constant juggling of endless costs for home, food, utilities, schools, clothes, prescriptions, cars, doctors, lawyers, even the doting family dog (no offence, Celeste).
  • Disease – an undiagnosed autoimmune dysfunction that frequently prohibits me from walking; a wife suffering chronic fatigue; a small son’s juvenile arthritis that causes him pain, tears and fears.
  • Our older son’s rebellious behaviour, which compels him to swear at teachers, fight in the playground, kick walls in, and undertake attention-seeking activities such as shaving off all his hair or wearing women’s makeup.
  • The loss of a mother to Alzheimer’s; my second wife to cancer; a best friend to drowning; and an unborn child to abortion (on medical advice).
  • A younger brother with multiple disabilities, including cerebral palsy, who lives in an old people’s home in the south.
  • A dysfunctional relationship with an angry 90-year-old father who has always criticised me for not being good enough and not following in his entrepreneurial footsteps.
  • Redundancies (two).
  • An unexpected, aggressive attack on my work performance by a boss who I thought I could trust. Strangely, for me, it was this last thing that broke the camel’s back.

Day 3: Thursday

I am sitting in a shabby, cramped meeting room next to the nurses’ station. There is me, my assigned psychiatrist Dr Gaylord, his 2IC Sophie, and a nurse called Baz, who’s sporting a “Just Do It” T-shirt.

I am mindful of the pink-painted imprint of someone’s hand on one of the old vinyl chairs Sophie is sitting on.

Gaylord is a fast-talking, clotheshorse of a man, with penetrating eyes. He rattles off a multitude of questions:

Did your mother or father suffer from depression? “Yes, my mother. She took the drug nortriptylene [an old, tricyclic antidepressant].”

How much do you drink? “Two or three bottles of wine a night, more if I feel like it…”

What is your appetite like? “Disappearing…”

How do you sleep? “Badly, barely and with vivid, often physical nightmares in which I inadvertently hit my wife. The ghosts are horrible…”

When were you last happy? “Four years ago. I wrote a book by a lake with a taniwha in it...”

How often do you think about killing yourself? “Every day, all through the day, and into the night.”

Sophie taps away on the computer like a stenographer.

“…60-year-old on third marriage… Hx [history] of depression… on venlafaxine, currently 225mg… low moods… feelings of hopelessness… poor sleep… suicidal thoughts… thoughts of hanging self… fragile ego… alcoholic blackouts… partial anhedonia [inability to feel pleasure].”

Gaylord tells me about myself in a way only my mother would know. He says I have undoubtedly had a lot of challenges in life, but I have been forcing them down for too long. I have been successful in work, but I am too sensitive to criticism. The ego is easily bruised. I feel things too strongly.

“You need to stop identifying yourself with work. You are so many more things.”  

He says alcohol and painkillers have only exacerbated my problems. “Although I do not believe you are an alcoholic, I do think you are an addict. We need to get you off these drugs.”

His last words reverberate: “You are in crisis and suffering a major depressive disorder.” Then he prescribes me several new drugs, including quetiapine (or Seroquel), a drug generally used to treat psychosis, schizophrenia, mania and bipolar depression. I know it through the character Carrie Mathison in the TV series Homeland. I ask if he thinks I have any of these illnesses.

“No, but it will knock you out.”

I am conscious that I need to create some space in my head. I need to be knocked out.


Day 4: Friday

My wife, Alison, comes to visit and take me out for lunch. I have her to thank for saving me.

She found me in the garage, holding the rope.

“I can’t do it anymore…” I sobbed. “I want to go to heaven.”

The next day she called my GP, who knew I was a risk. I had talked to her before about suicide. I had done my homework, researching the best ways to commit suicide. 

Alison had watched my downward trajectory over recent weeks – my short temper, anxiety, exhaustion, self-hate. She noticed how I was drinking, dropping painkillers, forgetting conversations. Then when she said I had started to swear at her, and I couldn’t recall doing so, I knew something was drastically wrong.

A triage team from the hospital’s psychiatric unit was despatched to visit me at home and assess my condition. A soft-speaking man and a mild-mannered woman agreed that as “uncomfortable” as it might be, a short stay in the psychiatric unit would be a good idea.

I am admitted by a well-dressed psychiatrist with mismatched socks and allocated the room at the far end of the shiny hall.

I am given a sedative and go to bed. I dream about my young son swimming in a poisonous, muddy swimming pool. I am shouting at him to get out, but he can’t. Then I am nursing him in my arms and staggering around in a desert dust storm trying to shield us from lepers who want money.

I have a troubled mind. 

Day 5: Saturday

I am woken at 8am to take my medication, then drift off again until midday. When I begin dressing, I notice my bag of dirty laundry is missing. It contained a distinctive pair of Peter Alexander “Tony the Tiger” pyjamas, T-shirts, underwear. My Apple earphones have also disappeared. I suspect Eskimo Joe, the guy who keeps asking if this is prison.

Alison visits and I take two hours’ “leave” to accompany her to lunch. We choose a dark pub with a quiet corner in which we can talk. I devour a Porterhouse and drink several Cokes.

She says Sophie, the junior psychiatrist, phoned her to ask how she is doing and give her contact numbers for support services. She updates me on life at home: Celeste has swallowed a chicken bone, tradesmen have visited to look at the rotten roof, Seb had a great piano lesson. “Oh, and I wasn’t going to tell you, but Jack got suspended from school for fighting.” She gives me homemade chicken chow mein to take back for dinner.

When I return to the ward, Eskimo Joe saunters past in my pyjamas, and my black, V-neck shirt which he is wearing backwards. I text Alison. “Guess who stole my pyjamas?”

She responds: “You should tell one of the nurses that you feel violated. Would you like me to call the unit and escalate the theft?”

“Nah, he can have them,” I write back. “I couldn’t bear to wear them again after his bottom has been in contact with them.”

I take a valium, a seroquel and the rest of the day disappears into night.

Day 6: Sunday

I lie awake and listen to people go to the toilet. It is not what I expected on my birthday; nor did Alison. Unusually, we share the same birth date. She sends me an emoji of herself: “BDay Smooches.” I respond with an emoji of me and a giraffe carrying presents. She has a soft spot for giraffes.

I take a shower and, midway through, notice the rim of the cubicle is caked in faeces. I freeze, hoping I might somehow be transported to another time and place. Then, I compose myself and tiptoe out.

Alison brings padlocks, potato chips, bars of dairy milk chocolate. I am allowed a three-hour leave pass, so we have yum cha, then catch Clint Eastwood’s latest movie, The Mule. It is a luxury to sit in Gold Class and lose myself in a film.

Then I am back inside again and feeling alone. Alison texts me in the evening: “Just remember what you are coming home to. It’s definitely not all roses. It’s the making of lunches, dinners, bad attitudes, talking back, fights about unstacking the dishwasher, or cleaning the table, tears because he doesn’t want to practise piano, the smell of wee from small boys’ beds. I’m worried about you coming back here.”

I drift off to sleep but wake again at 3am. I go to the nurses’ station and request another seroquel. The night nurse is a camp Samoan guy. “Sure, honey, whatever you want.”

Eskimo Joe is sitting by the coffee machine, emptying tiny sachets of milk into a glass. Hundreds of sachets are piling up around him. I return to my room and zone out again.

Day 7: Monday

I wake up to screaming. Wanda, an emaciated blonde with the skin of a purple pin cushion, is going cold turkey. She wants her methadone. She is melting down outside my door. Someone escorts her to a shower. She has lots of showers.

Later, quietened down and wearing a multi-coloured Balinese summer dress, she is telling anyone who will listen that it is her “shit dress”.

“Why is it a shit dress?” one of the nurses asks. “It looks beautiful.”

“I know,” she laughs, immodestly. “It’s the dress I wear when I take a shit and that makes me happy.”

I am reading when a bright young woman called Robyn knocks on my door and invites me to join a music group. I decline. “I’m not feeling so hot today,” I say.

“Well, feel free to pop in or out, as you please,” she says.

After a few minutes on the bed, I decide to join. I was a musician in a past life. What have I got to lose… 

The class is in the art room, a paint-splattered place that looks as if it belongs in a kindergarten. The paintings are childish and naive – black animals and misshapen faces. 

Each of us is asked what kind of music we like. Ben, a plump man with a skull cap and a stoned expression, says he likes hip-hop – only hip-hop. Marina, a young Italian woman with a smug expression, says she likes rap and Beethoven. I say I like jazz, Japanese pop and Brazilian soundtracks. Tyrell, next to me – the one with the welts – says he likes the same as me.

After that, we each choose a favourite song that Robyn will either play on her guitar (an expensive Martin) or on her phone. We also have to explain why we like it. Ben chooses “The Come Up” by hip-hop artist J Cole. “I like it because the lyrics are about everything,” he says knowledgeably.

Marina chooses Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, before changing her mind to No 11, then No 10. “I like it because it was the hardest piece he ever wrote,” she says. “And I like the ‘Do-Re-Mi’ bit.”

I choose the Jobim/Astrud Gilberto classic “The Girl from Ipanema”. “I like the fact that it’s like a short story about a man who loves a woman, but she doesn’t know. And how could he love her, he doesn’t even know her…”

There are a couple of slow nods and a perplexed stare from Tyrell sitting next to me. Marina bursts into tears.

Day 8: Tuesday

I wake up, excited at the thought I can go home today. At my review meeting with Gaylord, I say I am feeling rested, calm, almost buoyant. “It’s weird,” I say. “But it feels like a lot of my problems have either been contained or just evaporated.”

He asks me if I am frightened about returning to work.

“Maybe,” I say. “Maybe a little apprehensive. But I’m ready and open to any outcome.”

“And how would you feel if you were to lose your job?”

I ponder this. “It would create a huge number of problems. It would be hard. Really hard. But I don’t feel, like I did before, I don’t feel like it would be the end of the world. I feel more resilient.”

Over the next few days, I continue to evaluate the events of the past week. I still can’t quite pinpoint exactly what has happened, what has changed me, what blessing has been bestowed. But things are different. It could be changes and increases in medication, abstinence from alcohol, deep sleep, maybe the simple realisation that I am not as alone or as fucked-up as I thought.

Possibly, it has something to do with the shock of having been contained in this place of madness and chaos, this “Bedlam”, surrounded by people who have problems far greater than mine. Certainly, it has a lot to do with knowing that my wife truly loves me and has managed to rise above her own difficulties to steward me back to wellness.

It is also the wider support that the medical community has provided: psychiatrists, psychologists, an armoury of mental-health support services out in the community.  

I can look back on myself as another character, a long-lost sibling, one who got sick but gradually got better. And I know things are improving because my sense of humour has returned. As Kesey wrote: “You can’t really be strong until you can see a funny side of things.”

I say goodbye to Marlon, my chess partner, who showed me how to “castle”. It seems appropriate that he taught me how two chess pieces can be repositioned.

“Thank you for coming to say goodbye,” he says.

“Don’t do it again,” I tell him.

“And you,” he smiles, feebly shaking my hand.

I now know that anything can happen, and some things are simply out of my hands. What’s the worst that can happen? I could die… But I was going to do that to myself anyway.

Now, I’m happy to let life run its natural course.

*Ben Frobisher is not the author’s real name; although he is a New Zealander, his breakdown occurred in Australia. Other names have also been changed for privacy reasons.

Where to get help

If you’re seriously concerned about someone’s immediate safety, call 111 or take them to A&E at your nearest hospital; or phone your DHB’s psychiatric emergency service/mental health crisis assessment team

  • Need to Talk? (1737 – free call or text)
  • The Depression Helpline (0800 111-757)
  • Healthline (0800 611-116)
  • Lifeline (0800 543-354)
  • Samaritans (0800 726-666)
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline (0508 828-865).

This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.