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The First Twelve Hours
by Stephen P H Smith


"They're going to lobotomise and then sterilise; then they'll blind you"

I shuffled closer to the door of the Victorian whitewashed walls of the mental asylum. This was my first breakdown. I looked up and down the corridors filled with psychotics, junkies, alcoholics, and those beaten up by life. Some glared at me while they huddled around bins, fighting for cigarette butts.

"I've had two abortions".

"The IRA recruited me"

"Its magic. I'm walking in quicksand"

"Are you OK Stephen? This is your bed" said a nurse perfunctorily, showing me the dormitory of standardised thinly covered mattresses, while the windows were kept open all night; even during late November, to clear the reeking stench of urine, excrement, vomit and detergent.

That night I froze in fear and panic. Then "Wake up! Get up! Do you smell that burning in your head?" And then Paul, with two black eyes and grazes and cuts all over his naked body, lunged at my bed. He had such hatred and violence in his head that by now the whole ward was awake, some screaming, some laughing. How would I defend myself? My tortured mind went blank. But then Paul was wrestled to the ground by a nurse whose eyes looked as terrified as he did so.

"Some die in here. They're going to kill you" said a junkie the next morning in the smoking room, as I fought the shivering pain in the back and legs from the side-effects of the medication that I never wanted to take in the first place.

"Dad! It's me, Stephen! Help me, dad!", I sobbed down the phone.

"The doctor did say it would take you four days. We love you very much. Stephen".

But I knew he was right; I realised I had to confront this - in hospital, outside, there was no difference.

I was sweating profusely, so I staggered my way up to the dormitory to lie down, when suddenly my vision became blurred and I had to steady myself; a blackout while I clung to the railings. Then I felt a plethora of twitches and there in front of me were hundreds of crabs, crawling all over my body. "I'm hallucinating for Christ's sake!" I thought.

"You shouldn't have done it" uttered an elderly woman passing by me, stopping to watch my writhing. "What did I do, damn it?" I thought. Is this political? Operatives in a lunatic asylum? Those ex-army psychiatric nurses and recruits who were patients? Is this a Stalinist nightmare?

"Pull yourself together man!" said a relative weeks later. What the hell do they know about mental illness, I thought. Yes, I'm now writing and painting my way out of the booze and drugs that I once took. But nothing prepares you for an illness; nothing.