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This Much Skin

Let me firstly start this article with something I wish to make absolutely, no shadow of a doubt, 100%, crystal-clear... I have huge, huge love for our NHS, and for the people who are brave and strong enough to continue working in it. The concept of universal healthcare, free at the point of delivery may perhaps be our last bastion of dignity and compassion in a deeply troubled and toxic national identity (I am talking about both Scotland and the wider UK here).

That being said, what I want to discuss today is systemic misogyny in the NHS mental health care system, something that's insidious, devastating and so completely normalised that most of us don't even realise it's there.

As those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter may be aware, I am just home after a second stint since October 2018 in hospital for "situational crisis". I don't have a huge desire to get into what's behind it all - if you are interested, you might want to check out Dr Jess Taylor's work for insights into how survivors of sexual violence come to be labelled with various "disorders" as they work to come to terms with the normal human feelings that people experience as a result of trauma.

The night I arrived at hospital I was entirely lucid, albeit anxious and sleep-deprived; I really just needed some peace and quiet in a safe space to recover from over-stimulation (I am highly sensitive) and residual trauma that had been triggered badly by a rough experience earlier in the week. When I arrived, the nurse apologised that they had no beds, so I would be in "the quiet room" - at which I laughed and said, "honestly - that sounds like absolute bliss to me right now."

The bliss was short-lived. Very soon after I was admitted, the labelling began. I asked if I could have a bath (being in water soothes me), and as the male member of staff led me to the bathroom I heard him mutter "broken woman" under his breath in accents of utter disgust. I was taken aback, but in no position to challenge him at the time, so I just raised an eyebrow and reported his behaviour to a female member of staff the next day - more for the sake of my own self-respect than because I expected anything to be done about it. I mean, who even believes a "broken woman"?

This was the first in a series of misogynist micro-aggressions that I experienced throughout my stay, which genuinely drove me downhill to the point that I was very unwell indeed for a short period of time. What people who haven't been through the system as patients don't seem to realise about the hospital environment, is that every single thing you say and do in there is viewed through a lens of "madness" and therefore even the most reasonable human responses to what is effectively incarceration and the discomfort of that state are interpreted as further evidence of you being mad.

It's the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy.

I became aware very quickly (and I knew from last time) that if I wanted to get home in a reasonable length of time, I would need to play by the rules of the system, which meant taking whatever medication was prescribed without question (I'm still not 100% sure what I was given), being a "good girl" - going to bed early, not challenging the staff in any way, not visibly enjoying the company of any other patients too much, not showing any trace of impatience, annoyance or anger.

This was hard, because I was isolated, separated from my children, genuinely confused as to how the ward seemed to work, and somewhat disabled by short-sightedness.

My nocturnal contact lenses, including my cleaning fluid and eye drops disappeared after my first night on the ward. I asked at least one member of staff about them every single day until the day I left, and not one person came back to tell me whether they had looked for them or not, I had to keep asking over and over again. My eyesight started to regress and after about 3 or 4 days of being inside, everything was a complete blur. Because any expression of my irritation with the situation would have been recorded as evidence of me being out of control, I had to let them go. Eventually my mum in law dropped a set of old glasses off for me on Day 9.

After I had been in for about a week, I realised that whatever medication they were giving me was adding to my confusion, and it wasn't helping me sleep. I entered into a lengthy and draining negotiation with one of the nurses and she eventually agreed to "let" me ask for medication if I felt I needed it. The entire conversation reeked of coercion and control - there is no doubt in my mind that if I hadn't been a particularly articulate, assertive middle-class woman we would have reached a different outcome. I was forcibly sedated with an injection the last time I went to hospital.

A day or two after I stopped taking meds, I ran out of clean clothes so I asked the staff to let me use the laundry room. I bagged up all of my dirty clothes and put them in the washing machine, then went back to my room to have a shower. I didn't want to put dirty clothes back on a clean body, so I put on my last clean clothing when I got out - a long-sleeved cardigan that ties at the bust, over high-waisted pyjama bottoms and a bralette (see photo below).

As soon as I realised I had no clean vest tops or t-shirts, I knew that I was going to get into trouble, but my not-so-inner angry feminist was re-emerging. Why, exactly, should two inches of uncovered midriff send the ward into uproar? This sort of bralette is often marketed as a "crop top" to women more nubile than me. If I was skinny with small boobs, I could be wearing an outfit like this in pubs - ok so maybe not the jammy bottoms, but paired with something more "daytime" like a pair of hot pants?

Fuck this shit, I thought, and went to pick up my washing. And was of course immediately accosted by the nurses and asked to "put some clothes on" or words to that effect. The incident was raised in my exit interview with a (female) doctor as a legitimate concern about how I would cope at home. I have included a photo of the scandalous outfit in question for your viewing pleasure. Try not to get too excited about how shamelessly I'm flaunting those curves.

I realise that by sharing these microaggressions and calling them out as misogyny, I risk alienating anybody who currently works in an environment like this. To anybody who feels shamed by or uncomfortable with what I am sharing, all I want to say is that I truly believe that the staff are genuinely doing their very best in an impossible situation.

The people who work at ground level in our NHS are subject in my opinion to abuse and neglect on a scale that should be criminal. They are overworked, underpaid, undervalued and dehumanised by the demands of working in an under-funded, unfit-for-purpose institution that was designed for challenges of the mid 20th century and, despite the very best efforts of the people in it, is struggling to catch up. Is it any wonder that this toxicity spills out into the experience of patients?

They say a wise woman once said "fuck this shit" and lived happily ever after, and I hope that's true - I really do. However I suspect that the only reason I got away with it and got home as quickly as I did was because I am a white, educated woman with a supportive partner at home (and a willingness to download a list of patient advocacy lawyers, which persuaded the last doctor I saw pretty quickly to let me go). What about the other women I left behind on the ward, many of whom seemed in many ways as rational and competent as me?

Of course I'm not a doctor, so who knows what they are suffering from? The four women I bonded with most in hospital seemed to suffer from terrible cases of Being Italian, Being Working-Class, Being Post-Menopausal And A Bit Spiritual, and Being Wilfully-Disobedient - all of which caused more friction in their relationships with staff and the system than I experienced. I can't help but wonder - are they really "mad"? Or are they just vulnerable, traumatised and locked in a place that makes you crazy?

I suspect I already know the answer to that; I guess it's just a case now of trying to figure out what to do about it.

Suggestions welcome.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting me by buying a copy of The Silver Moon Storybook, my collection of original feminist fairy tales.




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