Liz gives us an insight into a world that thankfully is no longer acceptable. Today she is still angry in the way she was treated, for being gay in RAF.
After having served Queen and country as a Medic in the WRAF without a stain on my character, I was unceremoniously chucked out for being Gay. An ex girlfriend had been “dobbed in” by one of her exes and, under pressure from the SIB, gave my name.
I was devastated and moved from RAF Waddington to a tiny cottage in Porthleven, 2 or 3 miles from Helston where my mother was living. Alone and totally unprepared for civillian life I had, what was then called, a nervous breakdown.
“Nervous Breakdowns” was written about 14 years after the events described happened.
I had moved into a ground floor flat in a quiet part of Caversham and, on the day I wrote it, I was sitting in the dining room reading a newspaper. It was that time of year when the sun is quite low in the sky and it was shining through the french windows straight into my eyes.
I got up and pulled the curtains across and as I turned to look back into the room I felt as if I had been transported back to that dreadful time.
The curtains were not that substantial, only shutting out a fraction of the light, and the sun was throwing the shadows of the breeze blown trees onto the walls where it resembled the flickering of firelight.
The whole layout of the room was identical to that of the cottage in Cornwall. The door, the french windows, the fireplace.
For a moment I stood there shaking as I experienced a tsunami of emotions before running to the table, grabbing up the pen, and starting to write in the pad of A4 that I always kept there (to jot down lyrics). I learned that day what the phrase “to write furiously” meant. I wrote the whole thing in one go stopping only to find another pen when the original ran out of ink, using the forced break to stretch my legs by dashing to the loo whilst waiting for the kettle to boil so I could have a cup of coffee.
It was cathartic!
Many hours later I felt absolutely drained but euphoric. It was like having “been there – done that” twice and survived both times.
So I am not asking for pity when you read it – just a pat on the back and a “thumbs up”…well OK, a “virtual” hug too 🙂
Just promise you’ll laugh in all the right places (the socks for instance) because when I read it now I laugh at those parts too 😀
Nervous Breakdowns Are Not Necessarily Noisy
On The Way
It is now one month since I took the overdose and I am still angry at having been snatched from the jaws of death. I was really looking forward to leaving the noise and confusion of this planet behind me. No more living on a knife edge of pretence at conformity. No more lies…or love making with one ear constantly listening out for intruders. Looking back I see again those dark, cold places and our urgent wrestling and visualize myself in a dirty raincoat. How dare anyone make me feel perverted and cheapen my love! I kick what I think is a pebble and it turns out to be a granite iceberg in the sand. Hopping and swearing and praying my toes aren’t broken I am suddenly aware of where I am and what I must look like to anyone watching and I laugh like the lunatic they must surely think I am.
Out of breath and limping along the beach I realize how tired I am. I haven’t slept properly for months…in fact I make it three days since I slept at all.
I am on the beach collecting driftwood for my fire. It is November and cold. I collect pop bottles too. I have rented a cottage in this tiny Cornish fishing village which is only just on a bus route. The bulk of my severence pay from the WRAF is gone and my dole money just about covers my rent, cigarettes and electric. If I want to eat I have to trade in the pop bottles.
The larder doesn’t look too bad at the moment. My mother sent over a parcel of food from the shop last week. It had tea and coffee and baked beans and bread and eggs in it. I cried when I opened it. I can only hope she doesn’t know the full extent of my failure to cope back here in civvy street…back here on this planet.
My sister, Kate, sent a kitten over yesterday. They were going to drown it and she knows how I feel about that sort of thing. I call him Bobbykins. It is a thoroughly stupid name but it’s as far as my imagination will stretch at the moment.
I count the pop bottles. There are enough for a small tin of cat food and a bottle of milk. The other rucksack is heavy with driftwood. I can go home now.
Bobbykins rushes at me as I open the sitting room door and his claws leave pin pricks of blood on my legs as he climbs up my jeans and clings to my jumper trembling, purring and meowing just under my chin. I move him onto my shoulder, open the tin of cat food and spoon some into a saucer for him then fill another with milk and put him on the table to eat while I make a cup of coffee.
The fire is crackling and the room is warm now. The Moody Blues’ music flows from the speakers and washes over me in soothing waves. “Nights in white satin never reaching the end. Letters I’ve written never meaning to send”. The words are apt. I add three kisses to the bottom of the letter I’ve just finished, read it through, then send it to the flames to join it’s predecessors.
It is 11pm and the electric has just run out. Cursing, and stumbling about in the firelight, I eventually find the candle and light it.
The meter is situated half way up the stairs, for reasons known only to the landlord and the electricity board, and is reached via the kitchen.
There are three ten pee pieces on top of the meter and I feed them into the ever-hungry slot. The light comes on again in the sitting room and the Moody Blues climb back up to the right key.
I don’t think the electric’s going to last until I get my giro. Perhaps if I stop having baths, and wash my hair in cold water, and boil water on the fire…I juggle the possibilities in my head on the way back to the sitting room.
It is 2am now and tomorrow already. The sky is pitch black. No moon, no stars, no street lights. I am not tired. If anything I feel restless and full of energy. I might as well do the washing and get it out of the way.
The water is freezing cold and there are no suds from the lifebuoy, just a filmy scum floating above the tee shirts. I rinse and wring the first batch and hang them on the line outside the front of the cottage using the light from the kitchen window to see what I’m doing. By the time I come to put the second lot out the first batch have frozen solid. I tap them with my knuckles weighing up their musical potential.
4.30am. It has taken me two hours to realize that I still can’t word the letter to Mag.
I sent another lot of poems to Jeni this morning…I mean yesterday morning. God knows what I mean. Time doesn’t seem to have much of a meaning at all just lately. Day and night are one and the same to me.
Time is a funny thing altogether. From the moment we are born we are on a collision course with death. It is only a matter of time. Why the hell should someone else decide when that time should be? My life…surely, therefore, my death too? Perhaps my life has been spared because there is something fantastic waiting around the next corner for me? Sure. And pigs fly and birds make bacon!
I have just finished multi-tracking the songs for the second of the three albums I planned. I think I’m getting a cold I had a hell of a job reaching some of the high notes.
The beach is totally deserted today. I’m not surprized. It’s like a fridge here. The sky is grey and the sea is pounding hell out of the jetty. There’s plenty of driftwood though and I’m still managing to salvage dropped fish from where the boats come in. At least Bobbykins wont starve.
What the hell can I do about Xmas? I really don’t want to see anybody right now. I’m far too busy. I want to start on the third album before my voice packs up altogether. Well, I’ve got a few weeks…I’ll think of something.
Jesus, it’s cold today! Pop bottles are getting scarce. Well, if I don’t find any on the way home he’ll just have to have tinned milk and lump it.
“Hello, you fat, greedy animal! I suppose you’re hungry again. Well look what mummy’s got for tea. No, certainly not! You can wait until it’s cooked then I can have some too.
So how was your day? Played with your ball and slept, eh? Very commendable. No of course I’m not being sarcastic! Really…I honestly believe that these are highly suitable pursuits for small kittens. I’m not saying I’d enjoy it, mind. Yes. Yes. It’s on the way. Look I’m turning the grill on, ok? Right…now I’m going to make a nice cup of tea and by the time I’ve done that it should be ready”.
“No I’m not eating it. I’m blowing on it to make it cool so it wont burn your innards. Yes, I know. It’ll be on the front pages of all the papers tomorrow…’CRUEL MUMMY STARVES BOBBYKINS’…’QUESTIONS ASKED IN THE HOUSE’…’HANGING TOO GOOD FOR CRUEL MUMMY SAYS RSPCA’.
“Alright, you big, furry nuisance…but sit right in the middle of my lap and don’t move then I can balance the pad on the arm of the chair like so. Yes, it’s another one of those letters…and yes, it will probably join the others. Now shut up. I’m trying to think”.
I still can’t find the words. Another wasted evening. But there’s a moon tonight so I think I’ll take a walk down to the beach. Perhaps it will inspire me.
It’s beautiful here at night. The whole village is asleep and I feel like there’s not another soul for miles.
The water is still crashing against the jetty. It reminds me of a poem I wrote when I was about 14 or 15 called “The Beach”. It had lines like “and we are become as one timeless ocean” and “the waves covered us like a quilt” or some such nonsense. I showed it to my English teacher and he said it was lovely. I still laugh when I think about it because it wasn’t a poem about the beach at all. I had just seen “From Here To Eternity” and thought I’d get the sexy bit into verse hiding it behind beach-like phrases.
I know it’s cold here in the middle of the night but I feel so free. The beach is mine alone and I sing, well croak at the moment, at the top of my voice with only the wind and waves to hear. I am almost glad to be alive.
The knock on the door is unexpected. No one visits me here. It must be a mistake so I hold my breath and wait for the footsteps to announce the intruder’s departure. The knock comes again…louder, more insistent. I release my breath with a sigh of resignation and walk to the front door.
“Who is it?!”, I ask in my angry voice.
“It’s me. Janice. For God’s sake open the door. It’s freezing out here!”.
I open the door and she thrusts her way into the kitchen blowing warm breath into her gloved hands then rubbing them together. She turns now and looks at me.
“Holy shit! When did you last eat?”
“Lunch time”, I lie.
“You don’t look well”.
“I’ve got a cold”.
“Mm. Looks more like flu to me”.
“It’s just a cold. Really. Cup of tea? Coffee?”
“Either. Whatever’s easiest”.
I fill the kettle, desperately trying to remember if there’s any milk in the place, while she gets out of her coat.
“There’s a fire in the sitting room. Go on through. I wont be a minute with this”.
She leaves the kitchen and I see the empty milk bottle on the draining board and curse. There might be some tinned stuff in the larder. There is. It is one of only six items that occupy the cupboard. The others being a jar of coffee, a box of tea bags, a tin of syrup, a bag of sugar and a box of porridge oats. There is also an egg box but it’s empty so it doesn’t count.
Six items and an egg box that held six eggs. Perhaps it does count after all. If you could put all the other items into the egg box you wouldn’t need such a large cupboard.
My mind is wandering again. I get back to making the coffee. Coffee is easiest and it will be easier to explain the tinned milk. I smile at my cleverness.
We sip our coffee and stare at the flames dancing in the grate – our shadows, huge and ghostly, flickering on the walls around us. It will be dark soon and she’ll expect me to switch a light on. Perhaps she’ll leave before it becomes necessary.
It is a long time since I had to play host and I’m already failing at it I’m sure. Talk to her. I must say something.
“I went to see Kate and the baby last week”.
“Did you? What do you think? Isn’t she lovely?”
“Lovely”, I say, seeing in my mind the ugly, prune-faced bundle with the wispy hair and the lump where her navel should be. “Beautiful”.
I have obviously said the right things. She is now waffling on about how lucky Kate is. How good Paul is. Their flat. Her present for the baby and speculating about how soon it will be before Kate is pregnant again.
I wish she would go. I really don’t feel up to any of this. I’m aching all over and my head feels like a balloon.
“Was mum there?”
I’m jolted back into the conversation with a direct question.
“I said was mum there when you went to see Kate?”
“Well it’s probably just as well. You really do look awful”.
“It’s just a cold for God’s sake! I’ll be better in a couple of days”.
“I don’t mean that…well not just that. You look like you’ve lost a couple of stones. Are you sure you’re eating?”
“Of course I am. I expect it’s just these clothes. I’m wearing them big on purpose. I read something in a magazine once about wearing baggy clothes when you’ve got a cold…something to do with circulation and killing the germs by wearing them out. You know…giving them more room to run about in”.
“Is that a fact?!”
Her eyebrows go up. I keep my face straight and bored looking. I think she has swallowed it.
Our cups are empty. Perhaps she will go now. I try to hurry the process.
“How are you getting home?”
“Bill’s picking me up when he finishes work”.
She looks at her watch.
“He should be here in a minute. I’ll get my coat on. He wont want to hang about in this cold. They forecast snow in the next couple of days”.
I collect and rinse out the cups while she’s getting into her coat and I hear Bill’s car pull up outside. I open the door to let her out.
“Thanks for coming. It was nice to see you. We mustn’t leave it so long in future”.
“Right. I know, why don’t you come to us? Say Friday week? Come for dinner. About six”.
“Great. I’ll see you then. Love to Bill. ‘Bye!”
She shouts her goodbye as she runs to the car. I stand at the door smiling and waving until they are no longer able to see me, my mind already working on excuses not to go to dinner. Looking at the sky I pray for snow then shut the door.
Back in the sitting room I feel the tension leave me and I smile as Bobbykins yawns and stretches in his box.
“So you’re awake are you? Well you’ve got a choice for tea. Porridge or nothing. What’s that? Very well…porridge it is. Come on then. You can watch me make it”.
Over The Edge
I’m not going to even try eating anymore. I’ve been throwing my food up for over a week and I’m sick to death of the hassle. That’s funny, eh? Sick of being sick. You’re right. It’s not funny at all. It must be that bloody flu.
I’m so tired I could scream. What the hell is the matter with me? Just look at my face…I’m like a walking corpse! Perhaps it’s cancer. Now that would be funny. All these extra months of shit lived through only to be told I’m going to die anyway. If there is a God then he’s alive and well and has a very warped sense of humour.
I suppose I could try a couple of those sleeping pills Bill gave me. I’ve got to get some proper sleep. Normal people sleep…and I’m normal people. I don’t see that it could make things any worse.
I want to move but I don’t think I ought to. The room looks wrong somehow. The door is too far away.
“Jesus Christ! I told you not to move!”
Everything is slow motion…like being in a dream…but I know I’m awake. Am I awake? Perhaps I’m dead. I don’t know what to do. I think I’m going to be sick.
I don’t think I can get to the door. It’s too far away and my legs feel like jelly. I can’t stop shaking. The pills! It must be the pills! I have to ask Bill about them…but I have to get there first.
“For Christ’s sake stop crying and move!”
Nicely does it…one step at a time. Out of the door…past the table. Front door now…open…close. Onto the road…turn left.
“Well hold on to the bloody wall then! And stop laughing…it isn’t funny! And don’t start crying again! I don’t care what people think! Let them stare. Let them do anything they want as long as they don’t stop us getting to Janice’s”.
Right. We’re coming up to the cliff path now and there’s a hand rail all the way to the top. Get hold of it.
“Well stop crying then…I can’t see where I’m going! Oh, forget it…just keep moving!”
“God Almighty! Can’t you move any faster? I feel like we left home days ago! Alright…I’m sorry for shouting but I’m frightened”.
Not far now. Let go of the rail and take hold of the wall. Mustn’t stop…only yards now. Open the gate and down the path…ring the bell. What if they’re out? Don’t even think it! There’s someone coming.
“Bill! Thank God you’re in!”
“Where am I?”
“It’s ok. I think you fainted so I put you on our bed”.
“How long have I been out?”
“About two hours”.
“Two hours! People don’t faint for two hours! Where’s Janice?”
“Gone to see Kate. Stay cool…I wont eat you. Want some coffee?”
“Please. My mouth tastes awful. I think it was those pills”.
“Those sleeping pills you gave me. I couldn’t sleep so I took a couple”.
“And did you sleep?”
“No. I thought I was going to die. What the hell are they?”
“But they’re drugs! Bloody hippie fodder!”
“Don’t be so square, man! This is the seventies. There aren’t any more hippies. Welcome to the real world, Sergeant! Anyway, they are sleeping pills…but if you don’t sleep you trip. It’s no big deal. I’ll get the coffee”.
The tears are streaming down my face. I feel foolish and angry and sad…and tired and sick and utterly defeated. I wish I was dead. I don’t want to go on anymore.
“Drink your coffee and then I’ll drive you over to your mum. I reckon you ought to see a quack. You look really sick. I’ll just get a blanket from the spare room. You can wrap it round you. It might help stop the shaking”.
I still feel as if this is all a bad dream but things aren’t quite as slow motion now.
Bill carries me downstairs and puts me in the car.
“You wont tell your mum where you got the pills will you?”
“No. I wont tell her”.
Mum and Bill are whispering in the kitchen and my two youngest sisters, Bunny and Penny, are sitting either side of me on the sofa looking worried but I can’t make them feel better. I can’t even make me feel better. I nibble cautiously at the ham sandwich my mother made for me before she phoned the surgery.
I don’t like Graham and yet he is talking to me and being kind. It is forty miles to Bodmin. He’s taking me to the hospital there. Stupid old trout of a doctor! I’m not ill. I’m just tired. A good night’s sleep and I’ll be right as rain.
I am standing here stark naked. They have examined me from head to toe. Weighed me. Prodded me. Asked me stupid questions and told me to pull myself together and stop crying.
I would like to tell them to drop dead but I don’t seem to have the energy. Besides, without my clothes, I feel unarmed and don’t want to add to my feelings of utter shame and embarrassment.
I hate them! Nurses or not they have no right to look at my body. I have never even been fully naked in front of my lovers…only down to my socks. I am saving the socks as my final gesture of commitment to the right one…should she ever come along.
I know it sounds silly but it’s just one of my little quirks…and being where I am at the moment I can have as many as I like without feeling out of place. The thought cheers me a little and I sniff defiantly as I finally get to put my pyjamas on.
The ward they have put me on is like something from a horror movie! All the beds are full and most of the occupants are awake. The sounds are disturbing. Laughing, crying, mumbling.
There is one person, lying somewhere to my right, who is saying something over and over again. I can’t quite catch what it is. Perhaps it’s something to do with the pills they gave me. I feel tired enough to sleep.
They are taking the laughing woman away. It’s quieter now.
My tears fall silently. I haven’t got the energy to sniff.
There are people everywhere. Some are dressed as doctors and nurses. I am in the “Day Room” along with most of the other people from my wing. Even with my back to them I can sense their presence…hear their nerves jangling in tune with mine. We are all either laughing or crying, rocking or pacing…locked in the darkest regions of ourselves. Oblivious of each other yet totally aware of our proximity.
I think I have been here forever. I? Who am I? These hands don’t look even vaguely familiar…nor does the rest of me.
The faces in the curtains and the clouds are staring at me again. And it’s no use telling the doctor because he just says, “Don’t worry about it”.
He’s right. They’re not important. Nothing’s important. Nothing matters except tears and pain and medication.. Medication is the real answer to everything. It makes you forget things…even the things you can’t remember.
The woman three beds down from me is laughing again. I wish she wouldn’t. Every time she laughs they pump her full of largactol and put her in a side ward. She must like it, though, because it seems to happen every night now.
I have learnt how to bite my sheet. You wont catch me laughing!
I am still in my pyjamas and dressing gown. I haven’t seen my clothes since the night I was admitted. The visitors must think I’m crazy!
I’ve told them where they can stuff their occupational therapy. No way am I basket weaving! So we reached a compromise. I go to the OT wing…and they leave me alone in a corner with some paper and a pencil.
If I could only stop crying I think I’d feel better. But I can’t seem to stop and no one will tell me why. No one tells you anything here. I am wondering if it might be the medication. If I stop taking the medication maybe I’ll stop crying too.
I have hidden the pills under my tongue all day today. I haven’t stopped crying…but I thought I recognized my hands this afternoon.
The Turning Point
I have made a friend of sorts. Her name is Pat. She is 36 years old, married, has four children and is being treated for depression. I think I’d be depressed if I was married and had all those children!
To be totally honest she is more than a friend. We’ve been having a sort of affair for the past couple of weeks…well sex anyway. We know it’s not a serious thing, no grand passion or lasting commitment thing, and will end as soon as one or other of us walks out of the hospital but, for now, it feels like something we both need. Having someone to cling to, to care about and have care about you has surely got to be a more useful therapy than bloody basket weaving!
I have been crying now, on and off, for the past couple of months. People keep asking me why and I say, “I don’t know”. It sounds funny and I want to laugh but know that I mustn’t in case I don’t stop.
Would it be better to laugh forever than to cry forever? I don’t know. What’s worse, I don’t care. The tears take over again.
Breakfast is ready and we shuffle monk-like to our allotted tables. Stooping slightly, heads bowed, arms folded across our middles or hanging limply at our sides.
Emily breaks the silence.
” I’ll be mother shall I?”, she says and, without waiting for a reply, starts to pour the tea.
She is not really here and we are not the people she sees. Her twittery talk and over-bright eyes make her seem like a friendly budgie.
As she distributes the cups amongst the four of us she asks our opinion of her new drawing room curtains and suggests a game of mah-jongg after dinner.
Grace, who is sitting next to her, had electric shock treatment yesterday and doesn’t know who we are. The look she gives Emily reminds me of something…a scene from a play I saw at a London Theatre.
I sip my tea and almost feel the audience’s interest increase as the scene at our table develops.
Emily is now wittering on about a Major someone or other and lunch at the Ritz. I can feel the hysteria rising up from my stomach as Grace throws her another of those sidelong glances. I look to my right, towards the window where Pat is sitting, in an effort to gain control and see her mouth quiver at the corners. Her eyes, dancing with laughter, meet mine and we manage an almost normal smile.
I have stopped crying and the misery that has been sitting in a lump at the back of my throat is dissolving. I have finally eaten a whole meal.
Nurse Rose has been talked into letting me get dressed and Pat has got permission for us to take a walk in the grounds.
We link arms and stroll sedately towards the flower beds, under the watchful eyes of Nurse Rose and the Sister. With our backs to them we feel free to let the smiles take over our faces. Reaching the trees, and safe now from their gaze, we laugh aloud until our sides hurt and we are out of breath.
We sit with our backs resting against a tree. Holding hands, talking occasionally, revelling in the company of our nearness and the approach of spring.
We will be going home soon.
5th February, 1985