The psychiatric ward is calm today – though it's crowded. There are extra bodies because of building work on another wing.
“Seems calm,” says Sarah. But to my eyes and ears there is turmoil, both spoken and unsaid. I'm not used to psychiatric units and the normality gap is huge.
This session produces bursts of insight amid the huge white-noise of distress and overload. The pockets of calm seem all the clearer and wiser because they came in the midst of shouting, whooping, dancing, weeping. The enormous presence of pain sits by us, huge and yet fragile – like an elephant made of eggshell.
By the locked entrance door is a member of staff at all times. Staff move through the ward with guarded faces, while the 'service users', at first sight, wear their interior lives on the outside. Curled on a bed, or dozing on the floor, pacing the corridors, or sat on a sofa - their demeanour is often very expressive. So sadness comes to the surface in tears, shaken voices, unmasked emotion. Singing and dancing show agitation or happiness. But these things are themselves masks that hide further layers of felt experience.
The encounter that stays with me most is with A. She's fascinated by seashells and their spiral shapes. She made an illuminated letter of her initial, decorated with a spiralling blue whorl. “You can't fail to be interested, if you look at a few shells. Fascinating, they just take you with them. A shell looks chaotic, but it follows a pattern. The pattern has consequences, it grows and grows. You cannot do anything that hasn't a consequence... To me a spiral speeds, it spirals down out of control. That is why I'm locked in here. That is why, but I don't understand.... Symmetry. Fascinating, the balance they achieve. It's something I'm not doing very effectively right now...”
She paused and looked around her at the locked-in world she'd found herself in and her eyes welled.
I'm writing this on the train home as usual and find myself wondering at the inner lives around me. I look someone too directly in the eyes and there's an awkward moment. What are the patterns that we are all living and reliving? What are the 'reals' and the illusions? The woman opposite has a slight tic and her eyes keep tearing up. A man across the aisle is clutching a handful of pills - I wonder what his medication is.
So what is this self that we're all (selfishly) interested in? What is it made of, where does it lead to, when does it stop? A guy in the train has a tattoo on his forearm: Ad astera per aspera. I ask him what it means.
“Rough road leads to the stars,” he says.