I watch the clock on the wall.
The second hand never tires, never goes fast enough.
I’ve been doing this for some time.
It’s my thing. I used to watch the clock in school, in work, at home, on holiday.
And like so many other parts of my mind, there’s not another person on this earth who knows that I do it.
It’s a technique.
Not one I’ve been taught. Something I’ve developed myself over the years.
I count the hours down. The minutes. The seconds.
Counting them down until another day’s over.
I suppose the idea is that when I’m thinking about time I can’t think about anything else.
No two things can occupy the same space.
It’s a way of keeping me from the worst excesses of myself. The thoughts that terrify me.
I have a phrase also.
Something I’ve been saying for years.
Over and over.
Under my breath.
‘Just let me get through this day. Just let me get through this day.’
It’s a false comfort. A trick played on my own brain.
The next day is seldom better. Usually worse.
And the nights are worst of all.
That’s when the fear is most intense, the edges of doubt at their sharpest.
You pray for sleep. Sometimes it comes. Sometimes it doesn’t.
I watch the clock.
There’s some comfort in knowing that every day, no matter how black, can’t outlast the clock.
I need that comfort more than ever now.
I’m in a strange place. In a place I could never have imagined I would end up.
I always assumed I’d be dead before I saw the corridors of a hospital.
I’m in Ward 12.
I didn’t sleep much last night, just enough to confuse me when I woke.
As always I looked for my son first thing. My tiny infant son. But he wasn’t here today.
Instead I’m in a shabby room. Paint peeling off a the walls, tattered fading curtains, pillows limp and flat like a burst balloon.
The room looked like it had been forgotten about. A forgotten room for forgotten people.
The first day was the worst. I saw a doctor. Another doctor. I wouldn’t open up to them.
A nurse took blood from my arm and gave me some tablets.
Then I walk through the ward.
I go to the door which takes you back to the outside world. You need a code to leave.
I don’t have it.
I’m a prisoner here. For the first time in my adult life I don’t have the right to come and go as I please.
I need a signature on a piece of paper to leave this place.
I walk to the other side of the ward. There are other people up and down the corridor but I barely register them.
There’s a little room at the end, almost like a conservatory. A couple of bookshelves.
I decide this will be my place.
I sit in the armchair and wait.
I don’t know what I’m waiting for or how long it will take.
I watch the clock. I watch the raindrops on the window.
The fat drop explodes on the glass and then runs down the pane like a tear.
Like a tear.
I have so many emotions now. But most of all I’m angry.
Angry at myself for not holding it together. Angry at others for putting me in here. Angry at my cowardice that I allowed this to happen.
A nurse spoke to me this morning, gave me an induction. Told me about all the things they do here.
Like a holiday camp.
But I didn’t listen. I’ve no intention of taking part in any of their activities.
I just sit here watching the clock and the rain and waiting for something to happen.
Eventually I get hungry. I’ve been sitting in the same spot for hours.
I find my way to the canteen. It smells of burnt fat.
I pick the food that looks least likely to kill me in the short term and find a quiet corner.
I don’t even lift my head to see who else is about.
And then an extraordinary thing happens.
A large man with black hair and a red, round nose, sits opposite me. One by one a few other men drift to the table.
I look up, unsure what’s going on.
Then the large man holds out a giant hand, more like a paw. He has watery, kind eyes.
I don’t think I’ve offered my hand but he takes it anyway.
He tells me his name and introduces a few of the others. He asks mine.
‘Uh, I’m Jonny.’
‘We’re all very pleased to meet you Jonny. The first day’s the worst. But we all stick together and we’ll help you get through it ok.’
But it’s not fear I’m feeling now. It’s deep shame.
I had completely dehumanised these people. I thought I was too good to be in here with them.
But the same rules of kindness and compassion apply inside the ward as outside.
I learn that just because you’re damaged doesn’t mean you still can’t do a good thing. Still try to help someone else.
It all gets a little bit easier from here.
Just a little bit.
And the hours begin to turn like a spinning wheel.
I’m kept in the single room by myself for just a couple of nights before I’m moved into a larger, even more dilapidated area.
At first I think this must be progress.
There are four beds in this new room. One is empty. Two younger men and myself.
Curtains so thin you can see right through them separate the beds.
In the far corner is a scrawny boy with long ginger hair. He’s probably early 20s and he cries all the time.
Right through the night, behind his little curtain, the sobs never stop.
Often I hear him on the phone. He’s whispering, but there are no secrets in here.
‘Mum, please get me out of here. Please mum, I swear I won’t do anything, please mum, please….’
It’s the most desperate and heartbreaking sound I’ve ever heard.
Our other roommate is even younger, I guess barely out of his teens, if at all. He rarely ever makes a sound.
He is short and stocky, scars on his arms. His hair is coal black and his eyes are too. I don’t think I’ve ever looked into eyes likes this before. Eyes in which you can’t see anything.
His feet never seem to leave the ground when he walks. It’s more of a shuffle and his slippers squeak against the floor.
On my first night in the room I’m awoken by him thumping a shoe against the window.
It’s not an escape attempt.
He’s just doing it.
Some medics calm him down and bring him back to his bed. Less than six feet from mine.
I feel the beginning of a panic attack. The sweating, the racing heart, the uncontrollable disturbing thoughts.
My face is at the very edge of the pillow. I’m gripping the thin blanket so tight that my nails dig into my palms through its material.
Spasms of despair are coming out of my stomach and I fight to push them back down.
I don’t understand how this place is supposed to be helping me.
There are perhaps 20 patients on the ward.
It’s mostly men but there are a couple of women.
There’s one woman who walks up and down the corridor all day in her slippers.
That’s all she does.
Walking up and down.
She never looks at me.
Some of the patients are like me, just in for a few days. For a rest.
But there are those who’ve been here for a long time.
There’s one elderly gentleman, always smartly dressed. Never without a tie.
I get the impression that he hasn’t left this ward in years. It’s his protection against a scary world.
While I’m here he is told that he is to be moved to a geriatric ward.
He falls to pieces. We’re in the canteen when we hear his wails.
We move to see what is happening and catch a glimpse of him trying to run. Being held and comforted by a nurse.
His clothes are pulled and disheveled. His face is purple.
There is fear on his face like I’ve never seen.
It’s the first time I’ve seen his tie not straight.
There are lots of activities. I suppose they’re supposed to heal us but really they’re just a way to pass the time.
We do relaxation. Sitting in a room listening to soothing music while a woman reads slowly to us in a mellifluous voice.
We play games. Word association games. Games with cards. We’re given writing tasks.
Sometimes they allow us outside for a walk to the local garage to buy sweets or cigarettes. Accompanied of course.
On the Friday they throw a little party. The staff put buns and sausage rolls on plates and lay them out on a long table in the canteen.
A startlingly handsome woman with a guitar arrives to sing to us.
We gather in a circle around her and it begins.
She strums and floats out a song about a train. She sings a bit and then we have to respond.
‘And the train just keeps rolling on!’
This goes on. Some are too timid to do much more than mouth the words, others throw themselves into it with energy. I think I’m in the latter group.
‘And the train just keeps rolling on!’
Then we’re given instruments and we form a little orchestra. I’ve got a wooden stick which rattles.
She plays another song and we rattle and shake along to it.
One of the patients, beside me, bursts into tears and is taken back to his bed.
My phone rings and I quickly answer without thinking, so as not to interrupt the song.
It’s a friend of mine. One of Northern Ireland’s best known and respected journalists. Calling to discuss a story.
I’ve forgotten that there’s an outside world. Work.
I’ve forgotten nobody knows I’m in here.
He must hear the music. I can sense the confusion in his voice.
‘Uh, is everything ok Jonny?’
‘Yeah, it’s a bit difficult to talk now mate. I’m going to have to get back to you.’
Soon the music finishes. Some of the patients move off to eat the buns, but a few of us stay behind.
Our music teacher chats to us. Then she gets us to sit in a circle on the floor and we play a new game.
It’s a rhythm game. It involves clapping our hands and clicking a plastic cup off the floor. It’s hypnotic and pleasing. It seems like we could play this game for a very long time.
Later I help the nurses to clean up. Then I sit on a long windowsill and watch the heavy orange sun begin to sink.
The wind contains the first harsh hint of winter and the leaves are starting to brown and crisp at the edges.
Some of them have already fallen and are blowing around a small paved yard.
One of the nurses comes to talk to me. I can’t stop telling her about my wife and son. I show her pictures. She shows me pictures of her two little girls, her face opening with pride.
Suddenly I’m surprised by the late hour.
I realise I haven’t looked at the clock all day.
Each patient is assigned a psychiatrist. I meet mine that night.
He’s serious, scholarly and sympathetic all at once.
He’s keen to get me home. But also cautious.
Again the weight of having to make the right decision.
It’s not that he thinks I’m better, he just has to consider what’s the best environment to heal.
He orders me not to even think about work.
He talks to my wife. It’s not just about me. He needs to know that she’s comfortable with having me back at the house.
I’m almost afraid to get my hopes up as he reads endless reports and scratches his nose.
Then he signs a form.
And just like that I’m free again.
I quickly pack my bag and say goodbye to some of the staff and patients.
I let the handshakes linger. I’ve no idea if I’ll ever see these people again.
As I travel down the lift I can’t bear to let go of my wife’s hand. I don’t want to let go of it ever again.
I’m thinking about my son. Four months old. How I’m going to hold him in my arms. Bury my face in his neck. Feel his warmth. Smell him.
But as I walk out into the carpark there’s a familiar feeling. A little bit of the anxiety begins to return.
The truth is there’s a dangerous comfort in being inside.
In not having any responsibility. In letting someone else make all the decisions.
But that’s not life.
As I get into the car the thoughts are racing again.
It’s raining now.
Persistent and demanding.
I know that the hard work has not even begun yet.
* If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog or need immediate help call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000