Better Than Wuthering Heights

Wendy McNeill

Better Than Wuthering Heights

An American Patient’s Reflections on Hospitalization at High Royds

By Wendy McNeill

“No-one ever forgets their first sight of High Royds Hospital.”

                                                                                        –Patrick Goulden


The luminous clock tower was my first sight of High Royds Hospital. 


It was the middle of the night, and I was sandwiched in the backseat of a miniscule automobile between my dorm-mate from Bodington Hall, Claire, and the girlfriend of the dorm advisor, Sarah, with advisor Andrew at the wheel.  The idea was to get me admitted to the hospital as soon as possible and without any fuss, as there had been plenty of fuss up until this point.  As the car puttered up the driveway, fear coursed through me.  The moon was full; clouds obscured the clock’s glowing face.  The sprawling structure looked like a set from a horror movie.  My hands were being held and stroked, “There, there, luv, you’re going to have a bit of a rest.” 


It was December, 1991, and I had been studying at Leeds University for the last few months, on exchange from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and just kicking ass.  I studied by day, played squash every evening—my “mates” even gave me a racquet—and partied at the pub by night.  As for my impressions of British culture, I thought it was charming that “the post” came twice a day, that there were 2 phones shared by 40+ people in the dorms, and that almost no one had a car.  Students wrote their papers by hand. I was so happy that it seemed like a good idea to stop taking my lithium, a bummer of a medication, for my bipolar disorder.  Unfortunately, after winter exams, my euphoric mood escalated into manic psychosis, and I snapped beyond recognition.  Hence, the midnight trip in Andrew’s car.


At High Royds, they checked me into Beamsley ward.  Once in the dormitory, I thought I was in heaven and that the guy making my bed was a literal angel.  When I found out his name was “Paul,” I couldn’t be convinced otherwise.  He assured me that I was “in hospital” and that I was “unwell.”  The moonlight poured through the window onto the gleaming, lime green duvet, and lit up his face.  I concluded that he must be wrong.  This place was too beautiful to be a hospital, and moreover, he was too attractive to be a nurse.


I can’t recall a pivotal moment when I realized that I was actually in a hospital, but eventually I caught on.  They put me on thorazine, a lot of thorazine.  The medication was potent, 800 mgs a day, if I’m not mistaken, but it hardly did anything to slow me down.  I was also on something called “MAX OBS,” where I was closely monitored.  I bounced off of the walls, “dancing” everywhere.  My weight plummeted; there was a lot of talk about “stone” and how little I had of it. 


Everything I did I did to the extreme.  Symptomatically, I scored abnormal on all but a couple of the Daily Acts of Living.  I hardly ate or slept, bathed too much, moved too much, and talked too much. On three occasions, I set off the fire alarm, much to the chagrin and irritation of the staff.  One the whole, I was just too much.


Confinement didn’t seem much of a problem for me at first because there was always something to do.  The ward seemed spacious.  Beamsley was designed in a T configuration.  The dining area and common room, complete with television and stereo system, occupied the top of the T, while the corridor to the patient rooms housed what I called the “art gallery,” a collection of prints of all origins.  It was a good thing for me that the “art” was of interest to me because eventually, as is the lot of a psychiatric patient, life became boring.  Really, really boring.  Really, really fast.


At the point when I started to slow down, it was the doctors, nurses, and patients who became my sole source of entertainment, along with a convoluted journal that I kept with unintelligible scrawls at first and then actual text.  Interestingly, it was not the doctors who had a the greatest impact on me, nor the patients, but the nurses, whose influence on my life dominated my experience of High Royds and ultimately altered the rest of my life.  For whatever reason, it is the men that I remember most, and I remember them with clarity, a clarity that comes with having a once-in-a-lifetime experience in a setting as remarkable as High Royds.


One of the nurses who had an unintended impact on my life was Mark K.  Mark took himself very seriously.  He was a young, tall, thin guy, who wore little “John Lennon” glasses, very art –snob-coffee-house type.  A die-hard Chekov fan, he and his girlfriend had just gotten back from a trip to Russia.  He thought I was exceptionally annoying but did his job without complaint.  One afternoon, Mark took me out on the grounds for my daily walk, and he “had a fag.”  Up until that point, I had been a committed non-smoker, but his cigarette intrigued me, and of course, I was manic, so I had no inhibitions whatsoever.  I asked him for a drag, and he acquiesced.  I smoked my first puff.  It was a little taste of liberty!  Now, while smoking my Benson & Hedges menthol 100’s, I have flashbacks of that moment and remember that my smoking career started that day with a Silk Cut on the grounds of High Royds. 


In addition to my forays on the grounds, Phil S., a tall, self-effacing young man, would take me for walks inside of High Royds and let me stand on the white rose below the clock tower and crane my head up, up, up.  Phil bought me sweets once, took me to the ballroom, and the library where I checked out a copy of The Wind in the Willows, which I could read only a page or two at a time.  Phil would talk to me about the history of the hospital, and under his tutelage, I began to warm to the old place.  Eventually, through my chaperoned walks, I began to ward to the old place.  I started to become attached to High Royds, an unlikely home.  In my previous experience in a very institutional institution in the United States, I was drugged into oblivion, put in isolation rooms and restraints, and treated like a non-human.  In contrast, High Royds seemed like a sanctuary, almost magical.


When I expressed these sentiments to another of the Beamsley nurses, Mark “The Philistine” (he actually looked like a lumberjack), he said, “Ah, now, luv…you’d ruther be lookin’ a’ the walls o’ the Louvre than a’ t’walls of High Royds, now, wudden ya?”  Though this was true, the hospital was my lot for the time being.  I was just glad I wasn’t home going through my illness in some assembly line hospital that tried to hurl me out the door, sick or not.  In any event, I will never forget Mark’s pithy comment in his broad Yorkshire accent, an accent which was not easy on the ears when I first arrived.


Another nurse with a powerful accent and equally powerful personality was the charge nurse of Beamsley Ward, Chris G.  He was lean, red-headed, and had a mustache.  What I distinctly remember is that Chris would get razzed for liking “American football,” which I had no interest in.  This fact seemed to escape him because he brought in a magazine on American football to share with me.  I had the wherewithal at that point to feign interest and thank him heartily. I think I was a novelty for him at first, but then he started to like me for my own sake. He was firmly dedicated to seeing me get well.


It took me a while to figure out, too—and I’m not even sure that this is real—that Chris lived in the hospital.  The idea that nurses actually stayed at High Royds was a concept that I couldn’t wrap my head around, and still really can’t.  This is something so un-American that it’s still difficult to believe.


The person that can’t be forgetten:  Steve T.  I learned very little about him, except that he was married and was a Neil Young fan, and he lived in Guiseley, I think.  He was in his early 40’s maybe, with salt and pepper hair and kind, beautiful, blue eyes.  We had a rapport; I adored him.  I remember him looking intently at some of my “artwork” always depicting hands, the right red and the left purple.  I couldn’t explain how this was a metaphor for the bipolar fragmentation in my head, but it was enough for me that he tried to understand me. 


I asked Steve once how he knew I was getting better, and he said, “When you started taking the piss.”  I was proud of myself for having grasped that aspect of British humor and even more delighted that I could pull it off.  I was supremely delighted, though, that Steve thought I was getting better.  When I was being discharged, he gave me a copy of a poem, one line of which I can remember, “Come let us kiss and part…”  To this day, I have never lost my affection for that man, and I still have that poem in my old journal. 


It’s hard to say in retrospect what I felt for student nurse, Stuart W.


Stuart and I were introduced while I was on MAX OBS, that is, when I was clean crazy.  As a student nurse, he was also working for an agency to make ends meet, and at this point, I think the Beamsley staff was just “knackered,” and so Stuart was brought it to take up some of the slack.  It was at this juncture in my treatment that I was absorbed by the “art gallery,” and my first order of business was to give Stuart a “tour,” after he has dissuaded me from setting off the fire alarm again, which was my primary pastime at that point. 


My favorite print was one by an unremarkable artist named A. Bell., which featured a stylized tree inhabited by creatures and fruit.  I can only approximate the kind of dialog which occurred between Stuart and myself as I posed as docent, but it would have sounded something like this, “Oh my God, A Bell created this, like the tolling of a church bell, can’t you see, it’s the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and they’ve been brought here together by the principal of determinism so that we may visually have a feast of fat things set before us until we reach divine intervention…” etc.  Stuart would nod. 


After a comprehensive tour of the corridor, I showed Stuart my journal with some legitimate poetry, pre-crash, as well as some trash, post-crash.  Stuart was fascinated by the contrast, I think, and as most of the people there, somewhat intrigued by my bizarre symptoms coupled with my American-ness.  I’m sure I also inspired pity. Stuart took the liberty of writing in my journal, “Have a Good Chrissie!!!” along with his name and address.  I promptly highlighted his entry with lipstick.


Christmas came and went and no Stuart. My mother visited over the holiday. She seemed very American to me in her bright red coat and her blaring accent and was tragic about the whole thing.  She blamed me for stopping my medication and ruining her vacation to England.  I was glad when she left.


In the interim, I entertained myself by hanging out with one of the patients, Derek D.  Derek D. was in his late twenties, a towering figure, always in a track suit.  His most memorable characteristic was his “butterfly eyelashes.” They were brown sprinkled with blonde and totally unique.  It was practically impossible to move Derek from his chair in front of the “tele,” except to indulge in his passion for High Royds food, which broke the American myth that there is no such thing as English cuisine.  Derek taught me to appreciate Yorkshire pudding, brussel sprouts, and the ubiquitous crumbles which were the finale to our proper British “teas.”  Eating with Derek was always “a laugh.”


Derek did indulge me in one of my favorite pastimes, dancing.  We would waltz through the corridor as I stood on his feet.  I often wondered why the staff let me dance with Derek when I was always being chastised for dancing by myself.  It was pointed out to me later by Stuart that the reason for this probably was because Derek was “so bloody big.”


Stuart returned a few weeks after Christmas full of enthusiasm.  He put on the stereo, competing with the Star Trek episode being watched by Derek.  Derek growled about it, but Stuart won out.  He found a “knackered” 45” of by a Los Angeles musician named Michael Penn.  It was the song, No Myth, whose lyrics I will never forget:  “What if I was Romeo in black jeans/What if I was Heathcliff/It’s no myth/What if she’s just looking for/Someone to dance with.”  Stuart was wearing black jeans.  I thought the “she” was me.  The song seemed a strange bit of prophesy.


That day, Stuart turned Beamsley upside down.  While taking me out on my daily walk, he decided to deviate from the standard circuit around the grounds and instead take me to the local pub, and then into Leeds to have lunch at Burger King, and then to a music store.  It was my introduction to Orangina, the Whopper, and Nivana’s album, Nevermind, featuring the song, Lithium, which in my warped brain I took as a sign that Stuart and the stars were aligning just for me.


This outing was not what the Beamsley staff had in mind.  When I returned to the ward, the staff was in uproar.  I never really found out what happened—I wish to God that I could remember–only that Stuart never came back for a visit.


Eventually, the staff determined that I had had enough rest, and I was discharged.


I don’t remember how I got back to Uni, only that I cried, and cried, and cried in my tiny room.  I was supposed to be reading a Shakespearean play a week, and I knew that it was never going to happen.  Upon leaving High Royds, I still couldn’t handle The Wind in the Willows.  My “mates” at Seton House had no idea what I was going through.  Bereft and alone, I consulted my journal and found Stuart’s address and sent him a cheerful postcard. 


He called, and we agreed to meet at “the Barrel Man” in Leeds. 


The “date” proved to be my undoing.  After three days 24/7 with Stuart, on a frigid morning, I decided to walk from his flat back to Bodington, my mind spiraling, my body in shock. Without saying “goodbye,” I walked and walked and walked.  When on the final stretch home, an ambulance conveniently approached, and I stepped out into the street and flagged it down.  I asked the driver to take me back to High Royds.


I remember being walked back onto Beamsley ward, health technicians at my sides, my arms outstretched like Christ crucified, crying profusely.  The staff wanted to know what had happened to me, and having no filter, I told them everything.  I think Stuart’s career as a British psychiatric nurse took a giant leap back that day.


Stuart was advised never to contact me again.  I mourned the loss of “Romeo” and remained psychotic, only with a depressive flavor.  The staff helped me through even as I harbored bitterness that I couldn’t see my new boyfriend anymore.  Chris even teased me about it, chortling when my other boyfriend called from Oxford to see how I was doing. 


Too much time had elapsed for me to return to University, and arrangements were made so that I could safely travel to London and get a plane home.  At this point, I didn’t want to leave.  When it finally came time for me to say goodbye to everyone on Beamsley, I felt like I was leaving family.  I cried out of fear of the unknown, but mainly out of loss.


Of course, I didn’t let go of the Stuart connection.  I was too alone in the world for that, but the rest of the Stuart drama takes place on the American stage. In brief, Stuart moved over to San Diego a year after I left England.  After three months, his visa poised to expire, we married in Las Vegas and stayed together for three years.  We divorced amicably, though I cannot say the same for his other romantic endeavors.  He has since married and divorced two more times.  By wife, #2 he has a teenage son, named after the depressing, late English guitarist, Nick Drake.  Stuart stayed in the field of nursing and practices in child psychiatry in a state hospital in Denver, Colorado. 


I am no longer alone in the world, literally or figuratively.  Though my bipolar disorder dominated my life in my twenties, I have been relatively healthy for almost ten years now, and have manageable rather than debilitating symptoms.  I did graduate from University in the end, earning my degree from UCSD in 1995 with a major in Literature/Writing.  I finally got my personal life together, too, and met a stable man my age, an electronics specialist, on September 11, 2002, on the first anniversary of the tragedy (just to show you that I meet men under the strangest of circumstances.)  Now, we are a happily unmarried couple–Travis is perfect, except that he is a Republican.  By profession, I am an educator, working with both adults and children.  More significantly, I have been a volunteer for a mental health advocacy group, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), for eight years, serving four on the Board of Directors.  I do public speaking, writing, and fundraising for the organization.


Mainly, I am grateful to be alive. 


Nearly 20 years have passed since my stay at High Royds, and yet my memories of her still loom large in my mind’s eye.  She is indeed impossible to forget. 


I often wonder what would have happened to me if I had kept taking my lithium.  I wonder how many “firsts” I would have gotten, how many games of squash I would have won (provided it was gentleman’s serve.)  I wonder what my fate would have been if I had married that boy from Oxford or lived in some quaint town on the English countryside.  There are many things that I did not do because I ended up stuck at High Royds and because I tangled with the wrong kind of nurse.  My life could have been many other things.  I might have stayed in England long enough to pick up a mean Yorkshire accent, just like the girl in The Secret Garden.


After many hours of reflection, and given the amount of time I have spent on psyche wards I have done my share of reflecting, I’ve concluded that I have no regrets about my hospitalization at High Royds.  I never wanted a mental illness, of course, but I figure that being ill was part of the process of learning how not to be.  Moreover, I feel like High Royds gave me a benchmark for how people should be treated.  One of the reasons that I am a mental health advocate is because I feel like people with illness in the United States deserve the same level of respect as in the UK.  Here it seems like madness not to charge someone a dime for decent health care.  Few people here can comprehend that part of the story.  The sordid romance part they get; the socialized medicine part they do not.


All in good time…


I suppose I have one regret.  I have always wished there was some way that I could go back and tell those people that touched my life how much their work meant to me, how much their caring made a difference in my life.  There will always be a place in my heart for the Beamsley staff, and of course, the Old Girl herself. 


Someday I will come and visit High Royds again, and I will try to come in the middle of the night, just to take in the view.

Wendy McNeill