Life (and Occasionally Death) on the Ward

Poetry can shed a different light on the ‘facts’. As Emily Dickinson wrote ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant / Success in Circuit lies’.

Six poems here tell of life on a psychiatric ward. And, given this week’s ‘Time to Talk’ theme, they try to talk of three things that we usually don’t talk about – even within mental health circles:
• Relationships on the psychiatric ward
• The effect that one’s mental health problems can have on others
• Suicide – thinking about it, trying to do it and doing it

A psychiatrist once tweeted that they would not disseminate a poem of mine because it might be ‘triggering’. So, be warned, some of these poems may be just that.

In some ways, the ward led to healing. But not in the way psychiatric care is supposed to heal, more by its unintended consequences – the side effects – of incarceration. There was love as well as rage, community as well as isolation, new friends found, as well as the lost. I have written elsewhere on the kindness that helped me.

In many other ways, the ward can cause irreparable damage.

Yet, as humans, we are always reaching out to touch and be touched. For me, poetry is another way to do that still. Wordsworth wrote ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origins from emotion recollected in tranquility’.

We should not have to ‘explain’ poems, but I thought that for those who don’t ‘get’ poetry, it might be helpful to have a few notes. Just read the in-between bits if you want?



I want to help
on your first night in

because I heard them stay you
in that room

and through the door’s grilled window
is a still body in the dark.

Though I can make nothing
from the outline of you

I recognise your shuddering
at secret sounds.

I want to say:
Here, we are all boats

harboured in strange waters
becalmed, unreadied by storm.

Yes, I will be your lighthouse –
A steady pulsing lookout.

But in truth, at best
here, we are all dogs.

See how we stray
and roam the dock in packs

ripping at flesh and dregs.
No, none of us know how to help

and I will not
help you sleep.


The title ‘admission’ has, of course, a double meaning. Much poetry is punning. More seriously, this is about the difficulty of being new on the ward. To be ‘admitted’ was the single hardest experience of my life. Shocking in the extreme. But people tried to help. I am not talking about the staff (though many did) but my fellow inmates.

However, reaching out to another vulnerable person when you are also in pain is hard. You have a lot in common with your fellow sufferers. You are so thin skinned, that your very vulnerable nature is constantly on show. You are part of a soul parade. That allows for deep connection with others as humans. But when raw, we hurt and lash out. And any attempt to connect can backfire. Sometimes the ward felt like a wild terrain – everyone for themselves. At other times it was full of love – it was always confusing.

You Don’t Write Poems

You don’t take photographs of friends
on a psychiatric ward.
You don’t write poems.

This is not the right time
for a memorial, or place
for a blue plaque.

All the pictures you have you scratch.
Any leftover words
you save to explain yourself.

Now I write to see his face
the day before he disappeared
forever to his caravan

or touch his hand
reaching out to offer me
a chocolate digestive biscuit.


This is a poem both for me and others. On the one hand it is a simple tribute – a memorial – a desire to restore the presence of the dead and unsung. But it is also part of my attempt to retrieve meaning from a deep hole in my life.

There’s politics too I suppose: to illustrate again that people with mental health problems are invisible – as long as they stay that way, they can be ignored. We are labelled as ‘out of our minds’ and at the same time we are ‘out of your mind’. For me as a writer, it is an attempt to erase the rubbish I wrote at the time in my diary – long long cathartic rubbish, mostly about wanting to die.

In revisiting my words and putting them in a different order, something has reappeared in a way that I had not seen at the time (but was always there). Quiet and insistent – small moments that make all the difference.

The Laundry Room

We sat night after night holding hands in the dark of the laundry room
looking out through thickened wired glass across the hospital car park
watching a stream of vehicles ease in and out under the rising barriers
to and from homes we couldn’t imagine, down roads we couldn’t follow
headlights monstering and swirling our shadows against the blank walls
before we grew small again and fell listening to the hot heavy machine
churning its load, its bass hum, steady red dot glowing like an angry eye
for what seemed hours before the thing slowed, shuddering to a stop –
the eye blinked


Who has become the machine here? But this poem is also about a miracle – about a friend who became a girlfriend who became my wife. Loneliness is a killer on the ward. Intimacy and friendship though sometimes can be found. This is also about the practical difficulty of finding privacy in a noisy and turbulent environment. Every other communal area was full of smoke or shouting.

A hospital should be place of refuge and a healing sanctuary. I suppose it seldom is, even in hospitals where you are treated for a physical condition. But in those you would definitely be seeking ‘cure’, no? I don’t think people realise that the psychiatric ward is mainly about emotional quarantine and custody.


Stepping Out

Even then I was sorry
for the man who drove the white van.

Afterwards, the police
made us both a cup of tea

milk and three sugars for him
black for me.

It was hard to see
a man so shaken.

Now I have
an almost invisible scar.

But he saw this mad lad
stepping out

took in the dull thump
then had to explain

to them, his wife, his mates…
Or else keep it in

and the next day
get up and drive again.


This poem, obviously, is about the damage that people with mental health can unwittingly wreak on others’ lives. Don’t get me wrong, I could not control my thoughts, had little control over my behaviours and certainly had no intention to hurt anyone. But that did not mean others who loved me (and many who didn’t, like the driver of the van in the poem) weren’t affected.

I sometimes think that the ‘uncaring’ attitudes towards people with mental health problems do not just stem from ignorance or malevolence. More: fear. And that those with thin skins who turn away are merely protecting themselves from more suffering by disengaging from being overwhelmed. Plus: I wish I could let the van driver I turned out OK.


Two Types

There are two types of suicide:
Those that dabble
and those that are done with doubt.

The former can easily fall prey
to slight miscalculation of the dose
a sudden unbalancing gust at the edge
or late arriving ambulance.

I didn’t know which I was at first
but each night’s hesitation at the seventh or eighth rung
of the spiraling steps of the water tower
gradually told. I could only

watch with awe the ones
in bare feet, who beat a deliberate track
to the cold, deep, moonlit reservoir.


Writing about suicide is taboo. Have a read also of this courageous blog by Andrea Shaw. There is an odd atmosphere in mental health circles. Under the guise of ‘protecting’ vulnerable people, some of us dare not write about suicide. And in colluding with this emotional censorship, much learning is lost.

This is a harsh poem. But it is based on an observation – and if we are talking about engaging with patients (as I do, lots!), then there is a need to investigate the insights borne of experience. There is a serious question at the root of this poem: Are there different type of suicide? If so, might there be different approaches to prevention?


The Calling of Names

A bit of a laugh – a little eccentric
Weird – untidy – plays the fool
Fed up – down – sad – depressed
Troubled – bad – lonely – blue
Bonkers – mad – crazy – maniacal
Nutter – mental – hysterical – loon
Abnormal – psycho – schizo – delusional
Clinically ill – hallucinatory
Wrist slasher – pill slugger – cryer for help
Razor boy – criminal – traffic delayer
Time waster – dead – person under a train
Wanker – inconvenience – numerical data


This is pretty straightforward and avowedly political. The feeling that drove me to write this ‘list’ poem, was curiosity: how many labels are there for people with mental health problems? I can imagine a similar poem being written about many marginalised people and groups – people with disabilities, people who are gay or black; women.

But are there equivalent words and nasty labels for those with cancer? Diabetes? It says something about healthcare inequalities I think, that there is not a similarly long list of derogatory phrases for people with many physical health conditions. Oh, and I tried to make it ride along on a rhythm and a bit of a rhyme.

If you want to read more of my poetry, then you can order Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus here or have a peak at some of my other blogs – poetry makes random appearances. I will be performing my poetry at this year’s Critical Voices arts and medicine event in June.

1 thought on “Life (and Occasionally Death) on the Ward

  1. Thank you for sharing this David – sometimes people in the arts with lived experience can put experiences into mediums that make it more accessible than when we try to talk about something difficult.
    When I worked in the AIDS community we always had art activists; when we had too many car/bike deaths in Seattle the ghost bikes drew attention and in the world of health IT is was my friend Regina Holliday who created the walking gallery to literally bring patients stories in our backs into conferences and the community.
    So I am grateful to you for taking the time to share these poems


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