I should probably start this post by saying the only reason I’ve called it the ‘loony bin’ was because when I was a child, that was what I thought it was.
Sadly mental illness has always carried a huge stigma, mainly because people don’t understand it, and so when my own mother was committed to a mental institute, I was mortified.
I was nine years old when my Mum was diagnosed with clinical paranoia. Triggered by stress and bullying in her workplace, my Mum had begun to believe that the entire world was conspiring against her. Everyone was in on the conspiracy, including the neighbours and my Dad. The only two people who weren’t were me and my sister.
As with most traumatic things, I only remember fragments from the time. I remember Mum believing the phones were bugged, and filling the house with random tat from charity shops. I remember her repeatedly trying to block the door to stop us going to school in the mornings, worried for our safety. And I remember Dad’s time as a sole parent when my Mum was hospitalised – us eating more McDonalds takeaway than we ever had been allowed before!
My mum’s paranoia returned when I was 13 years old, so some of the memories are jumbled. One of the most vivid memories from the time, which will stay with me for life, was my Mum, clearly ill, screaming at my Dad, telling him she wanted a divorce. I was sitting on the staircase, listening to the argument while my parents were in the kitchen, and I remember being furious with her and the things she was saying. Why couldn’t she just be a normal Mum? ‘You’re ill Flory,’ my Dad said, with a calming patience which only comes from unconditional love. ‘And right now, they won’t let you divorce me, because you’re not well. But we’re going to get you well, and then if you still want to divorce me after that, well that’s your decision.’ If my future partner loves me even half as much as my Dad clearly loved my Mum, I’ll be a very lucky person.
My other vivid memory from the time was from the first bout of paranoia. Mum had been hospitalised at a place called Fairmile, which no longer exists. It was built upon the ‘Fair Mile’ – a long road in the middle of nowhere in Oxfordshire. I don’t know how, but at 9 years old, I had already heard of Fairmile, and I knew it as ‘the loony bin’. And at 9, I also knew I couldn’t say anything to my friends about what was happening. Even four years later, when my Mum was committed again, and I was in my teens, I wouldn’t say anything about it. I have no idea how old I was when I finally told my friends – it may even have been after Mum’s death. You just didn’t speak about mental illness. And THAT is the crazy part. Because when you start talking about it you realise just how widespread it is, and how many people you know who have been affected too. I think mental illness is meant to affect 1 in every 6 people in some way. That stat might be even higher these days.
Anyway … Mum was in Fairmile, but she was still worrying about me and my sister. After all, we were the only ones not in on the conspiracy. She called home one evening, and I heard my Dad struggling on the phone. ‘Charly, will you come and speak to Mum?’ (I’m the eldest, at the time my sister was 5). ‘Tell her everything’s fine’ my Dad whispered. ‘Tell her to stay in the hospital, she doesn’t need to worry about you. We’ll be coming to visit her at the weekend.’ I repeated the words, but my Mum was clearly worrying. I hung up the phone and went to bed as normal, reassured by Dad that everything would be ok. We were woken in the middle of the night by the phone. Mum had escaped from Fairmile.
At the time I was mortified. I hadn’t even told my friends that Mum was in the mental hospital … let alone that she had broken out of it! That was what crazy people did, right?
And yet, in hindsight, I bloody love this story. Because do you know what, in my Mum’s head, me and my sister were in trouble, and she needed to get to us. She put a chair through a window, climbed out through the broken glass, cutting the insides of her thighs so badly that she needed stitches, and that she remained scarred for life, and ran an entire mile down the road, bleeding, before she was caught! THAT is motherly love. And THAT is why my mum was a bloody superhero.
You can’t make this sh*t up!