For my once-in-a-lifetime good deed, I made a map, packed an energy bar and set out to find a London hospital. My intention was to visit an elderly acquaintance who, during this last week suffered her umpteenth nervous breakdown.
Enid was delighted to have a visitor, and the lady who sat next to her insisted that I took her seat. Enid was quite overcome, ‘no one here gets visitors…’ and forgetting her audience she said, ‘some of them over there have never had anyone come in.’
Looking down at her clothes she apologised, ‘sorry that I look so dishevelled. My clothes are all crumpled. I have only a few clothes that you can wear in this heat…and they’re wrinkled. Oh dear, I hate the way they wash my clothes, they put them in the washing machine with everyone else’s clothes, and well you never know what way the clothes might come back after being with all their clothes…’ she gave a darting, suspicious look to the other inhabitants of the room. The fact that her clothes were being bundled up with the clothes of the other patients caused her huge distress, and she went into enormous detail about how her clothes ‘get squished and mixed up with those people and their problems’. She thought that wearing her clothes, after they had been washed with those of other mental health patients would make her more ill. She started crying and complained that she wanted her clothes washed separately.
When she calmed down, she asked me some questions about my family and then with a look of great shock, she told me that over fifty years ago her baby-sister had disappeared and had never been found. Abducted? Murdered? No one ever found out, and this was the major traumatic episode that initiated her first breakdown. ‘I’ve given up thinking that she might be alive. And if she is, she probably wouldn’t want to see me. She left me…’ she said in an aching voice before quickly adding, ‘just look at me! I’m a mess, with my creased clothes. They won’t iron them.’
I stopped one of the care assistants and asked her if there was a programme for ironing the clothes.
She turned to Enid waved a set of fingers that had extremely long blue nails and said, ‘you knows the score. I says the same thing all the time, that yo’er clothes get washed with d’other and yo no like this. You wanna yo’er clothes washed separate. Huh! What cheek!’ Then she gave me a smirk that said, ‘she’s mental you know’.
‘But you wash my clothes with hers! I’ll get worse.’ said Enid pointing at a lady who was so thin she looked like her body was made of matchsticks.
‘You no gonna get worse! You bin here every year since I started. You comes in and out madam and you knows that people who got no family get their clothes washed.’ Her voice got more accusing with each word and pointing a finger at different patients she sneered, ‘she gotta have her clothes washed cos she got no family. He got no family can wash his clothes. I gotta do all their washing and don’t need you saying I’m making you worse.’ Enid’s irrational thoughts were painful enough for her, without this lady-dog giving her a punishment-style lecture.
‘My clothes are never ironed…’ said Enid. In an ideal world Enid would have told the care assistant “thank you” for merely washing the clothes, but the fact that her clothes weren’t ironed caused her to start crying again.
‘You knows that ironing your clothes iz not in my contract. Ironing is not written in my contract, and I no gonna to do it out of the good of my heart. That simple. Iz not in my contract.’ Repeat ‘iz not in my contract’ by ten. In fact, the care assistant went over to another patient and said ‘you wanna yo’er clothes ironed too, well iz not in my contract. I don’t never iron yo’er clothes.’
Thankfully Enid didn’t ‘get’ this last bit of a crass rant about contracts, but I thought it
Being a care assistant is a difficult job that requires a lot of patience – I know – I had this job during my university years. But why remind a chronically ill patient that they ‘got no family’, especially when the tragic loss of her only sibling is a grief from which she has never recovered? And why repeat relentlessly that ‘iz not on my contract’? Ironing may not feature on the list of duties to which the care assistant is bound, but surely ‘caring’ does, and this Lady, (albeit extremely anxious anyway) felt especially badly on account of not wearing ironed clothes.
I hope to get answers to the above when I write to the hospital with more precise details of time and place, and explain that the finger pointing, the revelation of personal details concerning the other patients (‘he got no family’) and the way Enid’s level of distress was heightened was not favourable for improving the anxiety levels of the patients. Oh and I’m sure ‘engaging in patronising and disrespectful conversation just because they’re too depressed to defend themselves’ is definitely not on her contract.
PS - For purposes of preserving her anonymity, I’ve refrained from giving her real name and ‘idenifying details’ have been changed.