The following is a personal history of life at West Park Hospital, Epsom, during the early 1970s. Do you want to share your memories? If so please e-mail us: [email protected].
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“It was July, 1969. I had swallowed a bottle of aspirin. My life didn’t seem worth living. I had broken up with my boyfriend, I had just found my father’s death certificate, saying he had died of a drug overdose, and not a heart attack as my mother had told me.
Not having any one to turn to, my overdose was more a cry for help than a desire to die. I was only 18 and couldn’t cope. Once the pills started to make me feel ill, I got frightened and ran down the street to the phone box. I called an ambulance.
Soon I was in Putney Hospital being looked after. It was suggested to me that I might like to go to another hospital for a while where I would be helped to get better. I thought this was a great idea, believing I would find something that was missing in my life, people who cared, people to talk to.
So, on 24th July 1969, I entered West Park Psychiatric Hospital for the first time. I was exactly one week off my 19th birthday. A duty doctor examined me physically, and I was let loose on the day room, with all the other patients. I was on my own. I didn’t think I was as bad as the others. They were all a lot older than me, and were behaving in ways I had never seen people behave before. One woman came right up to me, stared at me straight in the eyes, demanding to know what colour eyes I had. That’s all she wanted to know. Even though I was frightened to begin with, I soon got used to everybody.
On my birthday, a student nurse, same age as me, presented me with a big bunch of hydrangeas. I found out later, she had picked them from the grounds. I felt special.
I had at least 7 visits to West Park over a period of 3 or 4 years. My original diagnosis was depression I couldn’t argue with that. Antidepressants were prescribed, as well as sleeping tablets. I think the sleeping tablets were more to benefit the night staff.
There were approximately 12 beds on the ground floor, where new admissions went. I slept there for about 3 nights, then I was shifted to the upstairs ward, where there were about 20 beds.
The washroom consisted of several washbasins, no bath or shower. Those of us who smoked, would open the bathroom window, blowing smoke out, and throwing the butts out the window. We weren’t allowed to smoke upstairs, but that didn’t stop us. Baths were allowed, but had to be supervised. They didn’t want anyone to drown. The bathroom was downstairs.
On awakening , we’d have a wash, get dressed and go downstairs to the dining room for breakfast. I was on Roseberry Ward known as the female reception. Downstairs consisted of the nurses room, where the medications were kept, the sleeping area for new admissions and those requiring more care, and the day room, which consisted of many armchairs, a TV, and a piano. Nobody ever played the piano. Then there was the dining room, with a kitchen behind the serving area.
Just out in the corridor, near the staircase, was a padded cell. I was put in there once, for crying. I was sleeping downstairs, so I couldn’t have been there long. It was night the others were asleep, and I missed my friends, and the boyfriend I had broken up with. I was told to stop crying, but I couldn’t. So I has given an injection against my will, and put in the padded cell. This would have been terrifying, but the injection subdued me.
I only got to talk to a doctor the once, after that, he would acknowledge you briefly when he was on his rounds. There was no group therapy, no talk therapy, just medication, Electro Convulsive Therapy, and plenty of food.
Once I went for a walk in the grounds. Apparently I was not supposed to, but because I was bored with sitting around for days on end, I took off for the social centre. The Social Centre was one of the best parts of being in the hospital. Men and women could mix together – there was a canteen, and often we had fun. But on this particular occasion, I was still in my nightwear. When I was found, I was apparently in trouble, but because I was so drugged, everything went over my head. I was to pay for my transgression though. They transferred me to a locked ward. Now this was scary.
I hated it. There were some very dangerous looking women there, and the nurses would stand with their backs to the wall, watching everyone intently.
In Roseberry Ward, some women were made to take the contraceptive pill, whether they wanted to or not. I can’t remember if I had to take it. I suppose they didn’t want any pregnancies, but at the time, I found it very offensive.
Most of the time, I was very compliant, although I was admitted a few times in psychosis.
Years later, I realised these psychoses were a result of frequent use of LSD, marijuana, amphetamines, valium, and alcohol. But I was then diagnosed with schizophrenia, and prescribed stronger and stronger medication.
I met some very colourful characters in the hospital.
Fifi was a middle aged French woman. She was less than 5ft tall. She seemed to have a lot of power, and privileges. I think she was a long time patient, probably institutionalised at that stage. She seemed to be in charge of the kitchen. She could also get cigarettes for anyone, but you had to trade something with her. Once I traded some very expensive French perfume, a gift from a visitor, for a packet of cigarettes.
There was a woman who vacuumed the huge carpet area every day. I think she was another long term patient. She was huge very tall and big built. She was either African or West Indian. Either way she never spoke, but when she came close with her vacuum cleaner, no one needed asking to lift their feet! Everyone was scared of her, and it turned out with good reason. Once she went into a rage, and it took six male nurses to hold her down, and subdue her.
There were times I was sent to Occupational Therapy. I quite liked this, because it was another chance to socialise. Most people were making crafts, mosaic ashtrays, jewellery, and baskets. (So that’s where the term basket case came from?) I spent most of my time on the old typewriters, although I did make a lampshade once. My mother put it up in the lounge room.
On another occasion I was put to work in the geriatric ward. My job was to make the beds and sweep the floor. Sometimes a nurse would get me to feed one of the patients, and I was glad too, because the nurses were, in my opinion, very cruel to the elderly. I was paid five shillings a week for my efforts.
Apart from all the dramas, and injustices, I have some fond memories of West Park Hospital. I had a very troubled childhood, and adolescence, through no fault of my own, and for all it’s failings, I felt very safe in West Park. I know that I was in no position to take care of myself, and if it weren’t for West Park, I may well have not survived.”