I’ve just had a short stay in hospital for knee replacement surgery. It’s a disconcertingly quick process, once you’re admitted. I was admitted on Thursday and discharged home by the Sunday. Out with the old and in with the new. Literally. This was my third hospital visit over several years and the first one that was planned. The previous two had been crisis admissions. I don’t do well as a patient – particularly as one who has been a nurse for most of his professional life. My overall recollection of my two previous admissions was of a gap between “hard” medical skills and the “soft” nursing ones. Between the “male” skills of surgery and the “female” roles of nursing. I remember one nurse observing of me (to me) that “we’re all ill in our own way.” She was right. I’m not good as a patient. I’m far too impatient and independently minded. I hate being stuck in bed. I fear a loss of autonomy. My defence against existential anxiety is to become difficult and demanding. It’s a way of reminding myself – and everyone else – that I will deal with this situation in my own terms. And if those terms don’t accord with your terms, well, so be it. Which means I’m never going to be “that nice man in bed 12”.
This admission was a markedly better experience. In part because I’d had a lot of time to prepare myself. I had a list of coping strategies. Chief of which was “Be nice to the nurses”! I was and it paid off. I could relax and allow myself to be cared for. Which created a virtuous therapeutic circle. I was content and contained.
The image at the top of this blog gave me a lot to think about. I Googled “Containment” expecting to find images of holding. A mother feeding her baby. A parent and child walking hand in hand. Holding and held. Instead I found a number of images like the one I chose. I thought about using another gentler image but opted to stay with the violent image that Google gave me. I wondered why? Partly on the basis of my two previous admissions. Partly on my own experience of being in analysis and also of my clinical work as a nurse and a therapist.
Psychiatric nurses don’t get many boxes of chocolates from grateful patients. In 25 years I got one box! I was reminded of this when I left Papworth hospital. I dutifully brought a box of chocolates. “Oh. Chocolates. How nice.” was the distinctly lackluster response. “I’ll put them with the rest.” It was a fair response. I was expressing my hate not my love.
“Damn”, I thought, “nice Adult nurses always get nice chocolates from grateful patients.” In Mental Health this was not the way of things. We didn’t get “nice” patients nor did we expect to be “nice”. We expected to keep our patients safe. If that meant restraining them and forcibly medicating them, well then that was what we did. We contained them.
My two previous admissions highlighted this difference. The nurses expected to be liked. Why wouldn’t they? They were there to make us better and we were supposed to be suitably appreciative. So why wasn’t I being appreciative? I was being well looked after. My medication arrived on time and when I needed it. I was constantly monitored by a machine that bleeped if I even sneezed. I had drains, catheters, fluids and drips. All conspiring to keep me alive. So why my ingratitude? Mostly because I wasn’t contained. Nobody was asking me how I felt about having nearly died. Nobody asked me why I wasn’t eating or drinking enough. I was simply put on a fluid balance chart.
So the picture above sums up my first two experiences, My rage, fear, hatred couldn’t be borne. So I felt gagged. And murderously angry. Which I evidently conveyed. Powerfully.