‘How my time in a locked psych ward prepared me for our new normal’

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  • Terri White endured many forms of abuse during her poverty-stricken childhood, haunted by these demons Terri's dream job, working as a magazine editor in New York, was temporarily derailed by drink. A few years later, as lockdown descended Terri recalls battling her old ghosts of powerlessness and panic

    ‘I couldn’t shake it during those first few days of lockdown. The sense of familiarity when people flinched at the new world, a new normal governed by rules which saw us confined to our homes for 23 hours a day. I’d been here before; I’d had these feelings before. The taste of panic and the quick wave of questions: how, why, when would it end?

    As I sat in my flat, looking out of the window at the world that had paused, become quiet and still, I thought back to the two weeks I spent on a psych hold in New York in 2014. The days and nights spent separated from the city and life outside by the brick and glass of the hospital.

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    Terri pictured in New York

    Initially, when Boris Johnson appeared on our televisions to announce that, as of the next morning, we wouldn’t be able to leave the house other than once a day for exercise, food or medicines, the small two-bedroom flat I’d always thought was cosy felt small. The air tight. There may not have been wire mesh on the windows and this time I had a key for the locked front door, but so much of it was the same, including the powerlessness. Of no longer being in control of your own life.

    The psych ward, as with any institution, was governed by rules. Don’t shut the door to your room, no access to items you can harm yourself with, payphones only to be turned on twice a day, visitors permitted through the doors at strict times. They’re rules that I came to know intimately, understood how to navigate and wondered if I could circumvent. I was thirsty to regain autonomy. But it’s true to say that as human beings we adapt. We have to.

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    Terri during her time in New York

    When you can’t shape your own day, the mornings, afternoons and nights can become one long, unwieldy mass of time. So instead, you cling to those moments when things are different, when something, anything happens. Whether that was the call for breakfast or the queue forming to receive our twice-daily medication. In lockdown, dinner every night has become an event – around the table, wine poured, cutlery laid.

    Our lives which may have been filled with work we loved, raucous dinners with friends and long weekends with family were put on hold. And instead we’ve had to find our spike of excitement, corners of joy, in alien places. Regular FaceTimes we’d never have done to see those we miss. Daily exercise classes we’d never have taken, now a must. As someone who took part in Chair Yoga in hospital, I wasn’t remotely surprised when a once-sedentary nation got up every morning and joined in with Joe Wicks.

    When life becomes smaller and shrinks to a pinhead, it’s not a cliché – well, it is, but a correct one – to say that you notice things for the first time; you miss things for the first time. You grieve the small things that you’ve always taken for granted.

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    Coming Undone by Terri White is out with Canongate on July 2nd

    From the psych ward window, several floors up, I could see the sky, blue and clear, peeking from between the tall, tight buildings. But I hungered for the warmth of the sun on my cheek, the shiver of the breeze whipping down the street. I’d even have taken the aroma of the sweet, sticky nuts sold on the corner. You don’t know how much you’ll miss the feel, the smells, the touch, the tastes of a life, until you don’t have it on your tongue and at the end of your fingertips.

    With lockdown now lifting, I’m taken back to my final day in hospital. When I knew I was going home, back to my familiar life. I made promises to savour everything, waste no moment. Be grateful. Appreciate the things and moments that mattered. It was a pledge I forgot when normality took me back with open arms. Now, when we do finally return to normality, I hope we keep these promises. Or at least realise that there might just be something to this new normality.’

    * Coming Undone by Terri White is out with Canongate on July 2nd

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