The first time I was on a psychiatric ward was in 2008 when I was 20. If I'm honest, I was petrified. In my mind, the other patients were going to murder me in my sleep or I'd have to protect myself from brutal people wanting to beat me up.
The ward I was in had dormitory-style bedrooms with five beds per dorm. When I was shown to my bed, the other two women in my dorm at the time were in the lounge. I lay on my bed looking up at the afternoon sky, waiting to meet my murderers. I don't think I could have been more surprised at the two women who walked in. One was a timid thirty-something who couldn't say boo to a goose. The other woman looked in her forties and had one of the kindest faces I've ever seen. Both introduced themselves and then gave me some space to adjust.
Whilst I wasn't eavesdropping, I could hear the conversation they were having. They weren't planning how to murder anyone, they were talking about television programmes, magazines and, in true British tradition, the weather. A few hours later, the older woman popped her head around the wall that separated our beds and asked me if I needed anything. All I had with me was my mobile phone and keys (which were confiscated) and the clothes I was wearing. I showed this woman the toiletries the nurses had given me and mumbled something about pyjamas they were going to get for me. Shaking her head, she disappeared and returned with a pair of her own pyjamas. I shook my head, telling her I couldn't, but she set them down on the desk and told me to borrow them for as long as I needed. She also gave me a magazine and a couple of other little bits that I could keep. The younger woman then explained how the shower worked and other tips for living in the ward. In a few short hours, I had gone from fearing the other patients to weeping over their kindness.
In my second week, a woman arrived who made our lives a misery. We were all on edge around her and panicked whenever we heard her coming. Fortunately, she was moved to the locked ward after a few days, which made us breathe a sigh of relief. However, she was the only patient in that ward who I was ever truly afraid of during a stay that lasted eight weeks.
The following year, I was back in a psychiatric ward and my stay this time lasted 17 months. The first year was in hospital; the last five months in a specialist rehabilitation unit. During my first few weeks in the hospital, I was put in the locked ward after one escape attempt too many. My fears from my first afternoon in a psychiatric ward soon returned. This was the locked ward, where the violent patients were put, right? Again I was wrong. In the four-bed ward, three of us were there for too many escape attempts. The fourth was a woman with severe confusion who needed extra support that couldn't be given on the regular wards. In the months that followed, I met up with other patients who'd 'survived' the locked ward. The vast majority were there because of escape attempts, or successful escapes followed by a trip back in a police car. Some were there because of confusion and were a risk to themselves. Others were there simply because they needed more support than could be offered in the regular wards. In the year in hospital and five months in the rehab unit, I didn't come across a single patient I was afraid of. Some were noisy and shouted a lot, a few people acted really obnoxiously, but there was no one I felt at all threatened by.
In my current stay (my third), I have yet to come across a patient who is even marginally unpleasant. Everyone with confidence is really friendly, and those without confidence keep themselves to themselves. Everyone looks out for each other, just as they did in my previous two stays, lending/giving money, cigarettes and anything else needed. Those who are allowed to the shops ask others if they need anything before they go shopping. Even though we may have been complete strangers a day previously, everyone helps everyone else as much as they can.
I was talking with another patient a couple of weeks ago and commented that 99% of psychiatric inpatients are the nicest people you could ever meet. I now think that figure should be closer to 100%. Sure, we may talk to the walls, flip a chair over in frustration, feel withdrawn and not talk to anyone or talksofastthatpeoplecanbarelyunderstandus, but there's nothing about us to fear. After all, there's a reason we're in a hospital and not a prison.
And that's because we're good people.