Reading Francis Webb’s poems from Ward Two was tough. Pneumo-encephalograph had me wincing in pain, its graphic description of an archaic procedure where oxygen is pumped into the brain for an x-ray is just too horrific. I could dissect the poem here but I’d just end up with a headache. But his overall themes of being an inpatient resonated with me.
“We have been plucked from the world of commonsense” he writes in Harry. Having been hospitalised myself, sometimes it seems the sane people are in the hospital. And often leaving hospital is harder than being in there.
A few years ago I spent a month in a private mental health facility, of course nothing like what Francis Webb had to endure. When I got out, feeling quite chirpy I went to a family function. Everyone there knew I had been in hospital, it was no secret, nor should it be. When I got to the gathering my aunts, uncles and cousins were all happy to see me, several of them looked surprised and said “Gee you’re looking well!”. I don’t know what they were expecting! But as the day wore on not a single person asked me about being in hospital or how I was feeling. There was a lot of small talk about the weather, and bridesmaids dresses, and the neighbours new fence, but I just sat there wondering if I was imagining their sideways glances and condescending smiles. I made a joke about being in the nuthouse which was received with awkward laugher and uncomfortable looks, then a quick change of the subject and we were talking about fences again. I wanted to stand up and scream “I have just come out of hospital!!! Doesn’t anyone care! If I had a broken leg you would all be asking me about my broken leg!!” I left feeling paranoid and dejected.
Later I caught up with my friends at the mental health centre, all of whom have a mental illness. As soon as I walked in the door I was bombarded with hugs and a thousand questions; What was the hospital like? Do they really have a pool? (yes) What is the food like? (pretty good) Was Pervy Pete there? (yep) Did you have shock treatment? (as if!) Is it better than Pialla? (of course!). The contrast was amazing, and I realised I wasn’t being paranoid, some people really are still uncomfortable talking about mental illness. And I realised that my friends, my bat shit crazy drug addled friends are more important to me than my extended family.