A strange experience

I turned into the road which wound steeply up the hill and as the engine struggled (it’s only a little Kia) I was confronted by a woman standing in the middle of the road waving both hands at me. Was I going the wrong way on a one-way street (easy to do as they don’t seem to have many road signs telling you things like that) or had there been an accident up ahead? Neither, she wanted a lift up to the hospital at the top of the road!

The Mid Atlantic Wellness Institute (MAWI) is a psychiatric hospital, established as St Brendan’s Hospital in 1846. The building is an encouraging bright turquoise color. It is a far cry from the Victorian edifices that house many of UK psychiatric units. In 1848 there were just 8 patients, now it has 89 inpatient beds and provides over 10,000 outpatient appointments.

There are currently 4 Psychiatric Consultants and 4 training posts. In 2011 a new mental health plan was implemented, but even so one of the psychiatrists has openly stated that Bermuda is 40 years behind the developed world when it comes to psychiatry. The focus is only gradually changing to community management of mental illness but they struggle to cope with the many “revolving door” patients due to the lack of services outside. Stigma flourishes in the dark, as I realised during a conversation which was muted to a whisper for the phrase “she suffers from bipolar disorder you know, lots of issues”
It wasn’t referring to me, but for the fight against stigma I should say it could have been me.

So what should I do about this lady standing in the road? I felt apprehensive but for no good reason – she had no bag, no weapons, and when she spoke I could see she had few teeth. Her mouth betrayed the prolonged use of antipsychotic drugs – she had tardive dyskinesia and slurred speech. In the event I had little choice as she was by then climbing into my passenger seat. I felt guilty for immediately sitting on my purse and mobile phone, there was really no basis for my anxiety.

In our first week here we were warned about gun crimes and from the number of people mentioning it I presumed it was a big problem. The figures for 2012 showed that 5 people were shot dead and another 7 injured by guns. Equivalent figures for London are 89 deaths and for US over 30,000 gun or knife deaths. Ok so these are not fair comparisons, but overall crimes against the person in Bermuda are uncommon and are decreasing.

“It’s a hot day” I made polite conversation.
“This your car?”
A vague affirmation and “in Devonshire” as to where I lived.
Then, blow me down, just round the corner a man is waving me down, does he too want a lift to the hospital? It is within view, just 200 yards, so I decide he is just being friendly. Bermudians are very friendly. I have been instructed that Good Morning or Good Afternoon should precede any attempt at conversation and the correct response to this greeting is to make eye contact, smile and repeat. There have been times in my life when I avoid eye contact, not through any sense of guilt, rather because I prefer my own company or am feeling somewhat depressed, so I am deliberately looking up and smiling in case I am perceived as rude. Not sure if it is the weather or the friendliness, but my mood is certainly comfortably happy. My passenger too seems pleased with life and starts humming.

I don’t get to hear the whole hymn she is singing as we have arrived at the brightly optimistic turquoise building. I am sad in a way that I don’t get the chance to ask her about herself, about her medication, her life and her battle with mental health issues – yes, once a doctor, always a doctor, or maybe I am just plain nosy.

I drive on and find The Barn -effectively an enormous charity shop on behalf of the Bermuda Hospitals. I buy two books, one on brain surgery and the other on Bermuda wildlife.

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2 thoughts on “A strange experience

  1. Reb Deacon

    How disproportionately transformational such small occurrences can be – for her and maybe for you too. It is sad the stigma borne of ignorance and fear of the unknown still exists in whispers and the gaps, but open discussion such as your writing can only help people realise mental health is no different to any other illness, except perhaps a little harder as people make assumptions about that which they cannot see.
    I’m glad you both seemed somewhat uplifted by the encounter and remember…don’t try brain surgery on the local wildlife!!!

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