I hope you never have to know
But if you know, then you know
The Swiss travel writer César de Saussure had an eventful summer of 1725. Crossing the English Channel to London to take in the sights, after gazing upon the Tower of London and then London Bridge - as was the vogue entertainment of the day - Saussure took in a viewing of the mentally ill at Bethlem Royal Hospital.
“You find yourself in a long and wide gallery,” he wrote of his experience at the UK’s first hospital for the mentally ill. “On either side of which are a large number of little cells where lunatics of every description are shut up. You can get a sight of these poor creatures; little windows being let into the doors. On the second floor is a corridor and cells like those on the first floor, and this is the part reserved for dangerous maniacs, most of them being chained and terrible to behold. On holidays numerous persons visit this hospital and amuse themselves watching these unfortunate wretches, who often give them cause for laughter.”
And you thought the Trocadero was grim.
I’m thinking of Bethlem – or ‘Bedlam’ as it came to be colloquially known – as I stand outside another Crisis Team centre in the grounds of yet another east London hospital. I’ve tried to do myself in again. This time in Romford. Thankfully - I think now, less in the moment - I messed it up. Nobody wants to be in Romford, let alone cease to exist there. But I’ve accepted that I need help. And so I’m here, standing in front of a broken door boarded with plywood - less a medical facility than a requisitioned crack den - cackling coming from a window ajar. Happy Easter!
We ring the bell and we wait.
And we wait.
And we wait.
And we wait some more.
This is a surprisingly languid approach to dealing with crisis, I’ll level with you.
Eventually a member of staff comes to the door. They tell us to go somewhere else. We insist we’re in the right place. They argue otherwise. We persist. They go away to check. We can hear more cackling from the open window. What follows is an irrational thought inside a head filled with irrationality; “They are laughing at me”. Of course, I am barely aware of what is going on, instead counting out the rhythm of three in my head that always appears at times of great stress.
I look at my wife. She looks the most unhappy I have ever seen her. She’s married to a man with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I’ve seen my wife looking very unhappy.
“Can you imagine if you were on your own?” she says. “How is anyone who is ill, desperate and alone supposed to navigate this shit?”
My wife is from Birmingham. Try saying the word ‘shit’ in a Birmingham accent.
I just tried. It’s the most I’ve smiled in days.
I’ve seen so many of these places in the last four years. Decaying buildings in areas nobody wants to go to. Requestioned Victorian workhouses with peeling paint and grubby walls and nearly always the lingering smell of bleach. I have seen things I never thought I would. I have seen a man pick dogshit up off the ground and rub it on his face, laughing. I have seen someone run headlong into a glass window. I have seen a man eat a live snail. I have seen violence explode from nowhere and heard crying that sounded less like a human and more like a dying beast. I have had a window seat in which to view the lingering spirit of Bedlam.
And I have thought; we send people who are ill to these places to get better. We send people to get better in places that make them ill.
At least when Bedlam charged to see their unfortunates it delivered money for the upkeep (tangential thought, I have no money, my only employment is this Substack, if you want to come to my house and listen to me babble about the competing voices I can hear in my head then I’ll give you an hour for £15. That’s cheaper than the cinema! For £20 I’ll headbutt a wall!) These places fester like Black site boils, off grid, away from the healthy and the (at least on paper) sane. Out of sight, out of – no pun intended - our minds. Perhaps that’s why. We repel what we fear, and few of us fear anything more than losing control of our mind.
You wouldn’t know about these places, unless you know.
I hope you never have to know.
Hey. This Substack is how I make a living. I know nobody has any money, but if Elon Musk is reading this, ‘Hey Elon, it would really help me pay my bills if you could spare a few quid…’