By Clara Autumn

So, do I begin at the beginning?  From the glimmers of life in mother’s eyes, or from the first precarious steps of a toddler?  Perhaps I should just skip the boring stuff and head straight for the jugular, those juicy interesting parts of life that were my adolescence.

The unit

It was obvious even to a troubled 14-year-old that the brightly coloured notice boards were designed to make the place look like home, but to a lot of the distant young faces that occupied the theatre space, home was a concept that was long since passed.  There were several units on the campus where the adolescent unit was based, the nearest of which was a medium secure adult ward, home to everyone from your revolving door patient who couldn’t quite “get out of the system”, to what we all presumed as kids to be the worst of the worst, murderers, child killers, the things that hide under the bed.  Beyond the fantasy of our limited grasps on reality the truth was nothing more interesting than seeing the occasional man or woman being escorted by an orderly while they chain smoked.

The real fear was something a little more subtle, and didn’t come with the glamour and notoriety of a criminal conviction.  When we were spying on these troubled adults, there was always the underlying horror that was plain as day.  What if we were one day being escorted at arm’s length by two large orderlies, our already vacant faces then void of any recognisable spirit of youth?  As teenagers, a prospect like that was more than our minds should have had to consider.

We stayed alive together

I will speak as a collective rather a lot in this little snippet into my colourful history, the reason being this.  We stayed alive together, and while there are some who are now not with us, we did something that between us sometimes felt like the impossible.  We got out.  So collectively we were a mishmash of different neurosis, horrific backgrounds and teenage charm.  They were my fucked up mental health family.

I was admitted to the unit after 6 overdoses and a nasty case of prolific self-injury.  The initial meeting to assess my appropriateness for the environment felt like a court hearing.  There was my social worker, a woman with more tattoos than most men, who’d probably had more pussy too.  She was short, stocky and you most certainly wouldn’t fuck with her if you saw her in the toilets of a club.  However, contrary to her Mohican and piercings she was always the one who fought hardest for what I needed: one fuck up can spot another.

Secondly was the woman designated as my clinical psychologist, a woman who instantly came across as a little aloof but oozed school teacher, the crush was inevitable really.  That authority figure fixation didn’t leave my adult life.  Finally the head honcho, Lead Clinical Psychiatrist, had more letters after his name than a dodgy night school quack and all of the posturing to assert his credibility as the top of the food chain.

Is that a dare or a double dare, doctor?

“Rachel, are you aware of the severity of the situation?”
“In my professional opinion if you carry on engaging in the kind of life-endangering and chaotic activity, you will be either dead or in prison within 6 months”, he ordained.

“Is that a dare or a double dare, doctor?” I said without skipping a beat.

The day began with start of day group, peaked with middle of day group, and to press the obvious, ended with end of day group.  Disgustingly predictable routine was to become a staple diet, apparently teenagers ‘thrive on’ a routine and predictable environment.  Personally, I was the kind of teenager that saw this as a challenge, and from my first day it was game on.

I didn’t see white doves

My first day at the unit wasn’t a beautiful, life changing experience.  I didn’t see white doves fly out of the hedgerows and angels welcoming me with translucent arms.  No, I saw Hillary.  The plaid-wearing, slightly over friendly receptionist.  After a 40 minute taxi ride with a colourful chap that wore a flat cap and who I was admittedly grateful to that he didn’t look at me like damaged goods, even though he knew my final destination, I wasn’t really prepared for Hillary’s brand of smiley.

There was an air-locked outer door, which was something I had never seen before apart from in films and documentaries about “crazy people”.  I was led downstairs into the bowels of the unit.  Passed a menagerie of light airy spaces filled with tropical plants.  Downstairs was a corridor that acted as a vessel to various daytime activity areas.  All I could really think about was where the fire escape was so I could get a smoke.

“Start of day group!” a light and approachable voice called from the T.V lounge.

Here I got my first glimpse of the individuals I would subsequently spend the next 7 months of my life with.

Firstly a girl.  I couldn’t tell how old she was as the features of her face were so sunken they resembled nothing other than what I’d seen of third world charity adverts.  She was tall and holding a small grey teddy, which I found a little strange.  But her smile was that of absolute innocence and magnetic charisma.  I sensed that if I got in the shit she would at least call a staff member rather than letting me bleed out of the bathroom floor.

Secondly a larger girl, about 17 or 18, beautiful dark red curly hair, took out a headphone and extended her hand to say hello.  I then realised her vice.  From fingertip to elbow her arm was a map of deeply welted scars and wounds.  Never before had I seen anyone’s self-harm that was ‘worse’ than mine.  But then, I supposed, I was playing with the pros now.

Next, a girl who had the same ageless features as the first.  She looked to me like a pixie that was full of despair.  All of her lovely features were blown out of proportion on her skeletal frame, her arms covered with a light blonde hair that went up the back of her neck, and her hair as thin as her face.  She looked utterly broken.  ‘At least I can hide my shit’, I thought.  Finally a girl, wearing all purple, was roughly my age I thought.  She too was painfully thin, but she appeared not to have quite lost the spirit and fire that the other two were barely clinging to.

“I’m Katie”

We all sat round the room in a circle like some kind of pre-teen AA group.  I caught onto the game quickly, you would say how your evening was and your plans for the day.  Most would bullshit about the events of the night before just to get the spotlight off them.  As it later transpired, the ritualistic cigarette, post morning meeting, was the place to get all the info from the previous night’s events.  One thing that stood out to me was that in a room with literally piles of cushions and bean bags, the two girls who obviously had eating disorders chose to sit on the cold hard floor.  Like they didn’t deserve the warmth and comfort, their bones in pain.

I introduced myself briefly, said I was looking forward to meeting everyone (this was a lie) and waited for the strained atmosphere to be over.  The larger girl suddenly appeared tearful when it came to her turn at the self-disclosure.  It was obvious that she was unwilling to go into the finer details of her evening beyond the unit, but rolled up her sleeves to expose her forearms.  They were heavily dressed with white adhesive pads that were now seeping through claret, we didn’t need to see the wounds to know they were bad.  The general assumption from around the room was that she hadn’t had the jolliest of nights.

For the subsequent months in the unit it consisted of therapy twice weekly with my strangely attractive female psychologist.  I kept a diary, so it was easy to cut through the bullshit if I didn’t fancy rehashing the gory details of my home life.  After all, I had some equally unjolly nights.  Meal times where the girls that were in for eating disorders would push their food around the plate, like rearranging the food in a particular way would make it appear less in quantity.  One girl used to hide her food in her underwear when the staff weren’t looking.  I remember hoping that she had a spare set to hand for those less solid meals.


And of course some smoke breaks.  These were always the best times to get away from the staff.  They could clearly see us from inside the fishbowl-like T.V lounge, so they generally just parked their backsides down and left us to our guilty pleasure.  The conversations ranged from the tricks that were currently being used to avoid putting on weight, the most efficient tools that were discovered for maiming our young bodies and occasionally boys.  You know, standard adolescent psychiatric chit-chat.

This was where I met Molly. She had been on the unit for longer than most and appeared to wear this title like a badge of honour.  She always wore dark colours, her ear length black hair and severe fringe painting a picture of melancholy before she even opened her mouth.  I had just started sharing my taxi in with Molly as her home was on the way back to my foster placement.  I always thought she was a bit of an ignorant twat if I’m honest, as she had never so much as uttered a word to me on the journeys we had shared.  But today she spoke.

“What have you got planned for later?” she spoke with an unexpectedly feminine voice for her appearance.

“Well I was thinking of contemplating how spectacular my upcoming life prospects were, then I thought I’d just be realistic and settle in for a night of cutting up. How about you?”

I remember thinking that this ignorant twat really wasn’t worth a response without a healthy dose of sarcasm.

“Fancy coming to mine for some drink?” an infectious smirk rising across her face.

Seeing as the sarcastic response I shot at Molly wasn’t all too far away from the reality of my evenings I decided to take her up on the offer.  I recall that I hadn’t been self-harm free for about 80 days at this point, so I decided to make my excuses and head to the bathroom just in case I couldn’t quell my inner demons later.

Home time came, end of day group was nothing memorable, but it was a warm summer’s day and the light hitting the trees outside that evening looked particularly mellow.  Our car was waiting for us outside, our eccentric Greek driver beamed a smile exposing his gold tooth while he adjusted his leather flat cap.  We managed to convince him that it had been prearranged that I was to be dropped at Molly’s place.  He didn’t appear too sure, but obviously had little choice in the matter.

Molly lived with her mother, but it was clear by the state of the house that the woman possibly wasn’t the most grounded role model for a daughter with enduring psychiatric issues.  The smell of cat litter and stale beer was so strong I tried to block my nose a little.  Thankfully she suggested going upstairs pretty quick, as the mixture of cat shit and alcohol wasn’t something I wished to indulge in for much longer.

Molly’s room was draped in Indian wall sashes and posters of guys that looked as mean as they did appealing.  The walls were a dark purple and there were ashtrays and beer cans on every available surface. She opened her wardrobe and reached for a large bottle of vodka, opened the lid and took a large swig, then handing it to me shot me a wink.  We spent a little while talking about the unit, the staff and everything that we had in common.  I was pleasantly surprised that she actually seemed like the kind of girl I would choose to associate with outside our little fucked up psychiatric bubble.  The bottle was close to half empty within an hour.  I was feeling a little sick.

It had been a while since I had been able to get access to hard spirits, seeing as my foster carer had informed the local shop of my age. Yeah, cheers Alison.  And Molly’s demeanour had taken a shift from our bonding session to darker topics.

“So you cut quite impressively don’t you?  I’ve seen your arms and they’re deep fuckers, aren’t they, not like the chicken scratches some of them do.”

I remember thinking that this was a royally c**tish thing to say, even at that age I had never measured my pain in the extent of my wounds, and I would never presume that those girls had any less of it just because I could tolerate slicing a little deeper.

I remained quiet.  She put out a little black box from under her bed, I knew damn well what it contained.  Any reputable self-mutilator has a stash somewhere, only mine had to be hidden a little better due to my time-share home life.  If I’m honest, I know where most of the sharps that I could use to hurt myself with are around my home even now.  Old habits die hard.

“I’ve written a note, I just didn’t want to be on my own when I, you know.  And I felt like I had a connection with you even before we spoke.”

Fucking connection?  This girl had basically suckered me in with an offer of hard spirits that no messed up adolescent would decline, just so I could watch her off herself in a house that smelt of piss and addiction.  Seriously Rachel, you had made some pretty shitty life choices up until this point but this one was right up there.

She pulled out a craft razor and began to get on with the task in hand.  I recall looking at her and wondering why she was wincing.  I had never really felt pain when doing it, it all just went black and I would come around to the damage.  Then her phone rang, it was the unit.  One of the staff nurses informed her that our eccentric taxi driver had a moment of clarity later on in the evening and realised that he should probably let the unit know where I was.  She was half way through a sentence to the staff nurse when she began to slump over a little, still cutting while she was talking to him.  Everything seemed surreal as fuck to me, half a bottle of vodka down and watching this girl killing herself in front of me.  I really should have stuck to Alison’s shit chilli con carne and reading The Bell Jar at home.

Molly stopped suddenly.  I could hear the muffled voice on the phone telling her to hand the phone to me.  She didn’t, but she did drop the phone into her lap and slump onto her bed sideways.  I knew that the situation had taken a turn for the worse when I saw how grey her face had become.  I picked up the phone and told the staff nurse to call an ambulance.  They told me to hold her wrists together tightly and wait for emergency assistance.  I did just that, trying not to look at her face, and feeling the warmth of her life force seeping through my fingers.

I only saw Molly once after that in the unit.  And that was to collect her things a few weeks later.  She had been referred to a unit with “a little more security”, according to the large transport guards who were with her.  After that night I chose to engage with therapy more.  Somehow the rock and roll lifestyle of getting fucked up and getting suicidal seemed somewhat less appealing.  Watching someone else die as they try to bring you into their demise somewhat changes the perspective of someone, even at 14.

I left the unit at 16, with a few more scars and a lot more life experience.  Things weren’t going to be easy but at least I no longer wanted to die.

I saw Molly once again after my discharge, she was walking down the high-street of my hometown, three little kids in tow, fag hanging out of her mouth and a bleak look on her face.  I was hand in hand with my soldier, I squeezed his hand a little tighter.  He had no idea why, and won’t until he reads this, the same as you.

“You ok baby?”

“I am now, my love”, I replied as I walked past a piece of history that deserved to be behind me.


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