I have made many visits to mental health hospitals over the years, almost all of them in support of my mother who suffered for most of her adult life from severe mental illness. She was a patient at many of the locked wards of Melbourne’s mental health hospitals: Larundel (now closed, like so many of the maligned asylums), Maroondah, St. Vincent’s, Box Hill and in her later years the aged persons mental health service, Peter James Centre and its secure unit, South Ward.
The experience of these institutions humbles the mind. Any of us can learn something about this experience through the wonderful ABC documentary Changing Minds, that compassionately takes us inside the experience of these remote institutions, cloaked in stigma. To dwell here instructs the ambitious mind in the frailty of our lives. It teaches us how each of us is a “preposterous hodgepodge, uniquely arranged” – in the words of the great Inga Clendinnen who knew the gulf between the experience of the well and the sick – “a more significant division in any society than class or gender or possibly even homelessness.”
Out of one such visit I composed this poem, South Ward, which was published first in my collection, After the Pills.
The South Ward women are infinitely polite
Laughter and forbearance
Outlast the delusions of the mad.
It is not as if they do not respect the patients,
But they dwell every day in frailty.
My mother says she is enjoying herself,
Assessing what is wrong with the other patients.
The nurses carefully advise me:
Assess for yourself whether you feel comfortable
Taking your mother out.
My day soon will fall through this hole:
the great dark gift of the unwell.