nostalgia (nɒˈstældʒə ; -dʒɪə)
- a yearning for the return of past circumstances, events, etc
- the evocation of this emotion, as in a book, film, etc
- longing for home or family; homesickness
Ask someone what makes them nostalgic. The usual response will probably include children’s TV theme tunes, sitting on picnic blankets in the living room eating alphabites and spaghetti hoops, or family holidays in Wales; down-trodden youth hostel trips. Playing hide and seek, old houses, familiar smells, sounds, laughter – the stuff that brings back happy memories of childhood (if you had one).
A hospital ward is probably last on the list.
Ask someone who’s stayed in hospital for a prolonged period how they feel about it now, and they’ll likely tell you about the boredom, the monotony, maybe even the fear and horror – especially if it was due to mental illness rather than something that could be ‘fixed’ in a given time frame.
So why the hell do I sometimes look back on my time spent on an eating disorders unit (first stay: 3 months, second stay: 9 months), with a senseless feeling of nostalgia? I don’t actively want to go back there, ever, but it’s a time and a place that I will never block out. I seldom revisit those stays, but when I do, I sometimes kind of miss it.
You’ve probably heard accounts from people who’ve stayed on such units. Generally, there are two extremes. One, psych wards – forced stays under mental health sections; restraints, forced medication, lack of communication, long waits, the wrong approach, insensitivity, no sleep, sometimes danger and disruptive surroundings – hell holes. Two, rehab – the kind that celebrities ‘check’ themselves into for a bit of time out due to ‘exhaustion’ – that, on the outside, look like spa hotels that I’d give my left arm to go to just breath for a few weeks.
We don’t really hear about the middle ground. If I told you that I looked back on my time in hospital with a degree of fondness, you’d think I was mental. I guarantee it’s not because it was like a hotel – far from it.
The day went like this:
7am – Weigh in. A line of quivering wrecks in backless hospital gowns (no underwear allowed), both dreading and obsessing over whether that number had gone up or down. Up meant progress towards fatness. Down meant they’d make you eat more or move less, or both. Always bad news, either way.
8:30am – Breakfast. An alien concept to many of us, yet one that, as the body got used to being fed, we loved – and then felt guilty for loving.
9am – Curl up, supervised, so we couldn’t throw up or exercise or cut our arms up at the thought of having cereal AND toast lying dormant in our bloated stomachs. Trying to block out mindless morning television.
10am – A walk, if you’re lucky. If not, perhaps a push around the hospital grounds in a wheelchair because you’re too fragile to walk for ten minutes. I’d get told off for walking ‘too fast’ (normal pace). If it was raining this bit of fresh air was out of the question. Cotton wool.
10:30am – More food. More supervision.
12:30pm – More food. More supervision. More bloating. More guilt. More hate.
2pm – More food. More supervision. Maybe a sneaky walk.
5pm – More food. More supervision. A rare group session (staff-permitting) to vent about how much we hate ourselves and our bodies.
8pm – More food – the last of the day – a relief, but still food. Supervision.
8:30pm – OUR TIME. A couple of hours to socialise and to not eat, or worry about eating for the next 12 hours. Heaven, temporarily, on a good day.
There were tears of anger, frustration, fear and madness on a daily basis. It wasn’t a happy place to be. We were there to get better, in the most part, against our will. Better meant fatter and that was our collective worst nightmare. It wasn’t easy. It felt like we were eating constantly and still digesting the last meal when the next one came. The queue for pre-meal diazepam was like feeding time at the zoo. We tried everything to numb ourselves, but it still hurt. Ambulances would come and go. Escape bids made. Police bringing escapees back where they’d be drugged up and put on 2:1 observation for the next week. And every so often, a liver or a heart would pack up and one of us would die.
But despite all of this, despite having someone watch me piss in case I threw up and check on me every ten minutes during the night in case I decided to do room aerobics, despite crawling out of my skin every day and despite the routines and rules and regulations, in a fucked up way I sometimes miss it.
The people were cool. When you’re in the same place going through the same shit day after day for months on end, you have to find something to help you through and although close friendships weren’t encouraged (they were seen to be detrimental to recovery), they were unavoidable. We broke the rules, like 14 year olds smoking our parents’ fags behind the sports hall at school, we’d smuggle in banned items like diet coke, chewing gum and whenever we could, booze. We’d pretend to night staff that the day staff had said we could stay up late to watch films ‘for a treat’ and feel so powerful when we were still up after midnight, high on sleeping meds. We’d have pillow fights and wheelchair races and bitch about everything – and laugh.
Nostalgia usually comes from happy memories in happy places, but I guess it can also come from the glimpses of happiness that you manage to somehow create even in the shittest of situations. They stand out more, maybe they mean more. Maybe it is ok. Maybe I’m not that mental after all.