This is the second part of the story about how I lost my mind and landed in prison. See part one here: http://asylummagazine.org/2018/01/grief-gone-crazy-is-still-grief-by-ria-dylan-2/
Once I had made this decision I was free. I felt rage and elation at the same time. I spent hours trashing my flat in anger and in recognition that it didn’t matter anymore. I ran around smashing plates, hurling furniture, splattering the walls with paint, throwing everything that could be thrown, doing a proper mad persons laugh at every smash. My music was on full blast for all the hours I was trashing things. I found out later my neighbour called out environmental health – the women in suits who I thought were the social workers.
They knew what I was going to do next. They were reading my mind. And they weren’t stopping me. Therefore I could only conclude that; given my neighbours had moved out and there was only me in the building it was ok for me to set my house on fire. Suicide is no longer illegal. They knew I was going to set my house on fire and they didn’t stop me so it must be ok. So I did it. It went up really quickly. I was frightened. I opened my flat door and shouted “if there is anyone in the house I suggest you get out now”. I locked my door. I watched. I became frightened and ran into the bathroom and phoned my friend. She told me to get out and I said no. She said she was coming but I had to get out. I couldn’t, it was too late, it was too hot to open the bathroom door. I climbed out of the skylight onto the roof. Half the street were outside my house looking up at me. A man was taking photos. The fire brigade came and rescued me off the roof. I was overwhelmed by the volume of people. I walked round the corner and sat on the wall waiting to be arrested. I was strangely calm. Well I was in shock, I say calm but it’s relative to what I had been experiencing for the previous few hours. I was still on the phone to my friend who was on her way. A police officer came and an ambulance. I asked if they could wait till my friend got there. They let me stay sitting on the wall talking. I was working so hard to stay calm. Suddenly there were more police. I couldn’t cope, it was too much. I was concentrating so hard on being calm I couldn’t cope with so many people. I stood up and turned away so I couldn’t see them. I shouted at them to give me space. They bundled me, searched me and threw me in the back of the van. I was covered in bruises from my arrest. There was no need. I was 6 stone when I got arrested. Tiny with no strength. I wasn’t resisting arrest. I would have got in the van if they told me to.
So I got to the police station. I was babbling by this point. Mouth open, sound coming out, unintelligible even to me. My handcuffs were removed. I clung on to my friend for dear life. Images of the past month whirling round my head, my insides screaming. The world is spinning in every direction. I am horrified. I know I am in the police station. I know I set my house on fire. I know I am in Big Trouble. Nothing else makes sense, I can’t make sense of how it happened or which bits are real or which bits are being played by actors seeking to elicit a particular response from me. I am strip searched. I can’t take my clothes off. I can barely move. My friend takes my clothes off me. I am given paper trousers to wear. They button up the sides. They are so big on my teeny body I have to wrap the waist round twice before buttoning them. I am given slip on pumps 4 sizes too big. I feel so ashamed, I am still limping from the soft tissue damage, I am ashamed as I limp along in too big shoes and too big trousers.
My take on time is skewed. I think I spent 3 days in the cells. It could have been a day or a week. Who knows. I see a doctor and a social worker. I feel so volatile. I am raging at myself. I am terrified. They ask me what I think will happen. I shout “I’m going to fucking prison aren’t I?”. I see another doctor who asks me my name. By now the noise and confusion in my head is so intense I have to search around to locate the answer. I know this one! The doctor tells me to hurry, it’s not a hard question. I shout ‘I’m fucking trying to answer your fucking question. Don’t rush me’. I hurl the telephone from the desk against the opposing wall. The police rush in and bundle me back to my cell. My notes read that the doctor thinks I am “angry and impertinent”. I wonder if a man behaving in exactly the same way would be deemed “impertinent”. I see a solicitor. He tells me I am well enough for interview. He directs me to say “no reply” to everything. The police interview is extremely distressing. I get asked all sorts of questions. I don’t understand why they are asking me all these things. They are asking me about hurting people and killing people and telling me they know my intentions and why I did it and I am confused because they are reading my mind wrong. I say “no reply”.
My cell door is never closed. There is an officer in the doorway at all times. I pace and cry and hyperventilate. Sometimes I rest. Time passes slowly. Eventually I am at the magistrates’ court. I am referred to crown court. Bail not applied for. I am going to prison.
Prison vans are called sweat boxes. Inside are tiny little cells with a hard plastic seat. I worry about what will happen if we crash. The ride is uncomfortable. I have lost so much weight it is painful to sit on a hard surface.
I get “processed”. There are questions to answer and forms to fill and I have to talk to a nurse. An officer comes to take me to the nutters’ wing. As we walk I can hear other prisoners calling out the window at me. She asks if I know why I am there. I shout “Cos I am a fucking nutter”. And I sigh and say “and I didn’t used to be”.
Image by Rachel Rowan Olive
I have my own cell. The wing is loud. I am still hyper sensitive. The jangle of the keys makes me want to rip off my skin. I am my own melting pot of distress sitting in a larger melting pot of distress. I have never before or since been surrounded by such profound distress as the months I spent in Newhall Prison. It is never quiet. There is always shouting and crying and wailing. Shouts of support, threats, self harm, suicide attempts. There is a woman in a plastic see through Hannibal Lecter cell. I think she never sleeps. The hospital wing grinds along to the permanent tune of her shouting. She bashes at the walls shouting “He’s a paedophile, a dirty fucking paedophile, a paedophile, a fucking paedophile”. The words grind into my bones with every bash, every heartbeat, paedophile paedophile paedophile. It goes on for weeks. Sometimes the officers go in in riot gear to get her out and clean the cell.
I am waiting for my friends to decide it’s gone far enough, I’ve learned enough, it can stop now. I decide I need to do everything I can to be ok, if I’m going to cope with this. I start to eat. I stand on my head. I write. I do maths. I draw pictures. I sing. I talk to the birds teasing me with their freedom outside the window. I pace pace pace round my cell to burn off the energy and calm the thoughts. I go to the chapel and cry and cry and cry.
I see a forensic psychiatrist. ‘Schizoaffective Disorder’, he says. I am terrified. I’ve been diagnosed mentally ill before but this has ‘schizo’ in the title, this is serious, this is proper madness. I can’t apply my social model thinking to a proper illness with schizo in its title. There is something wrong with my brain. All my personal meanings and understandings fly out of the window. I wonder if my brain will ever work again.
There is so much I could say about prison, and maybe I will, in another blog. The point I want to make is that here, in the harshest of conditions, my mind slowly came back to me. And that was tough. Prison was easier to deal with while I still had some hope that it was a simulation and my friends were going to make it stop. If you want to throw a red rag my way, tell me about how prison is like a holiday camp. Having a TV in your cell doesn’t make up for not being able to hold the people you love, or sit on the toilet without being watched, or staff and societal attititudes towards you. Or never knowing when an officer is gonna come into your cell and go through all your things and make you take your clothes off. Prison is a barren land. No warmth. Harsh and cold. Grey and sharp.
I don’t remember what flavour of bad day led to me drawing this.
After 4 or 5 months I got bail. When I finally went to trial I was directed to change my plea to guilty. I got a three year community order with psychiatric supervision. I was ok. Jaded, tired, a bit bewildered, but ok. My mind was back to the mind I knew and trusted. I knew why it had happened and strangely I felt better than ever. I had got so overwhelmed – my mind was tangled and knotted and dark – it had exploded out of my head into the world, but it had all landed back in a better place, a better order. There was more space. Before this breakdown, I was so full of darkness and twisted up with painful experiences. This all exploded into the world where I could see it and walk around it and move it about. The worst was over now. Except I was now compelled to see a psychiatrist. He said he wanted to put me on antipsychotics to cover his back. I requested that any treatment be based on my needs and not what the papers would say if it went wrong. He said he was joking and “any psychiatrist would medicate you”. Suddenly all meaning was gone again. We talked of symptom management and malfunctions.
So, feeling mentally very well, strong, I was put on an antidepressant, mood stabilizer and antipsychotic. I slept for most of the first few weeks, put on 4 stone, was permanently tired and spent the next 18 months doing a dance with the mental health system. I was often reminded that if I didn’t comply with treatment I could be taken back to court for resentencing. This could mean back to prison. My plans for sorting my life out had to go on hold now. When my order came to an end I asked to come off the medication. I was told “it wouldn’t be unreasonable for you to be on medication for the rest of your life”. I told him that sounded extremely unreasonable and came off my medication. I said I wanted therapy, he said someone with a history like mine shouldn’t have therapy, I shouldn’t think about my past, that would make anyone miserable. I discharged myself.
While getting a diagnosis was probably of some use while I went through the court system, on the whole my relationship with psychiatry was a damaging one. Medication meant I had to put my life on hold at a time when I really needed to rebuild it. I am glad I managed to evade psychiatry for so long. Obviously I wish I hadn’t set my house on fire. If I had had more support, or even if I had managed to stay out of my own house, that wouldn’t have happened. What was happening in my head had meaning and value and I can’t understand it as illness, I am glad my experience wasn’t medicated away. I believe my mind came back in prison because it was allowed to run its course without being suppressed. I’m glad I ignored my psychiatrist’s advice to stay on the never needed medication.
I’m finding it hard to finish this post, because I want there to be a happy ending and there isn’t one really. Like most people, my life can be tough, painful, frustrating, lonely. I’m not allowed to forget what I did. When I apply for a job I have to declare myself an arsonist, and that sounds so bad I tell them the circumstances so then they can take their pick. Discriminate against me for being a badass or discriminate against me for being a nutter. You choose. Being mental in 2017 brings fresh new challenges that weren’t around back then. It’s no longer paranoid to say the government is trying to kill me, they are taking us out one by one. Sometimes I slip into a place where all I want is to end my life, sometimes I can’t leave my bed. But I do have people I love, I have running and the woods. I have ways of dealing when my mind starts to go too fast or demons come dancing or I get too scared to open the curtains or leave the house. I have a beautiful dog called Bob Dylan. And I have a pretty cool story to tell about the time I lost my mind and went to prison.