About two years ago I stumbled across a blogger called ‘Pitsea pirate’ who gave a poignant description of his childhood and how he ended up in Hill End Adolescent Unit for six months when he was twelve because he kept running away from home. This led me to also read a report by a social worker on a blog called the Needle blog called ‘the therapy of fear’ about adolescent units. The links to these are below. These blogs brought back some bad, unpleasant memories, albeit from 35 years ago, that I had buried away and I had to have counselling for about eight months.
Hill End Adolescent Unit was a specialist unit that was closed down in the early 1990s. It was staffed by social workers, teachers, nurses and doctors. I spent more than three months in the Hill Adolescent Unit in the 1970s as a young girl of 15, after being wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia, a devastating label to put on any young person. I have decided to share my memories of Hill End because I am concerned that children today are going through the same horrors now in similar institutions.
At the time I was unhappy at school and had a troubled, disturbed home background. Prior to being admitted to the Unit, my parents took me to see the family doctor and I sat in the surgery while they all discussed me as if I wasn’t there. After that, I remember my parents taking me to the adolescent unit (a foreboding, shabby building). When they left I have a clear memory of standing in front of an office, terrified realising I was locked in.
There were a few members of staff in the office and a lady just came up to me and offered me a drink to drink in a little cup which was a sedative. She didn’t explain what it was and I chucked the drink on the floor. Some of the children came out to look at what was going on. A boy came up and said if you don’t take the drink they inject you. None of the staff bothered to explain this to me. I tried to run away, but one of the girls ran after me and dragged me back. A member of staff then came out with a syringe, and I tried to run away again. I am sure I remember although it was decades ago a man and a woman jumping on me and pulling my skirt and pants down in front of everyone and injecting me with the sedative, although I was 15 years old, only five foot two inches and quite thin – about 7 stone. The staff didn’t care less about me. I had an audience for this too, which (if that’s possible) made it even more humiliating. It was very frightening and unnecessary as I was never a violent child.
Then I remember the nurses taking me to the dormitory area and putting me into bed. I know three of them sat on me, one of the women I remember sat on my shoulders. I was worried she might suffocate me. After a couple of minutes I blacked out.
The next day I woke up, groggy and disorientated and my case was under my bed. A lot of my clothes had been stolen (by the other inmates I presumed), half of them were missing. Someone had undressed me and I was in bed with just a nightie on. I explored my surroundings. The sleeping area of the unit consisted of cubicles with little single beds. There was no privacy, no pictures. The other children there seemed hostile. I had no life experience and they were like strangers – I don’t remember ever talking with them about their lives or backgrounds – I don’t think we were allowed to. It was a weird place where the staff displayed a lack of compassion and understanding. They regularly sedated children as a form of punishment. This happened to the boys more than the girls.
One of the therapies was we had to sit round in a circle and were made to talk. If you had a problem you had to call a meeting and there were meetings every day. I only called one once, when an one of the male patients kept trying to touch me inappropriately (one of the girls told me to do this) and the nurse brought out a big needle and three of them wrestled him to the ground and injected him. Another boy who seemed autistic and kept crying and wailing was constantly being sedated. I know he ended up in Napsbury Hospital as I saw him a few years later when I visited a friend who worked there.
The sedation – even though it is several decades ago, I have memories of the sedation which knocked you out in seconds and its side effects. The staff didn’t explain anything about the side effects to you. Initially after being injected with the drugs I was very ill – my neck would suddenly go into spasms and I had a strange tongue (it was hard to eat). One day my neck went into spasms and it went right back and I collapsed in a heap – I think one of the boys picked me up. I thought I truly had gone mad – it was very distressing.
I remember a room downstairs where children sat around and were ignored and there was continuous music. After admission I sat on a chair in this room so drugged up I couldn’t move. One of the staff called me over to him; it was probably because he wanted to call a meeting. I didn’t answer him so he picked me up by the hair and dragged me over. This particular nurse told me I would probably end up in the main hospital.
I remember swimming trips and hiding at the edge of the pool, hoping nobody I knew would see me. I remember a girl who used jump on my back, and knock me flying. I also remember I went a few times to a little school where there weren’t any real lessons. I remember once somebody chucked all the used sanitary towels in a couple of containers onto the floor into the girls’ washroom, and I was made to pick them up without gloves, even though I hadn’t done it – I wasn’t even asked if I had. The nurse made everybody watch – then they sedated me. I do not remember any of the staff speaking to us individually, and explaining things before they did them instead of those ‘meetings’ – although it is a long time ago.
Anyway, eventually after three or more months I went home. When I went home I had problems sleeping or concentrating on anything. I also suffered from nervousness and the shakes. I wonder now if it was post-traumatic stress, but that wasn’t recognised then. I think my time in the Unit did me more harm than good. Mum told me never to speak of the Unit to anyone outside the family but I think we had family therapy for a while.
My school said I was capable of going to University, but I didn’t because I had missed so much school. There was no attempt to continue my education in the Unit. I spent a few years in my early 20s deeply depressed about my situation – but didn’t trust psychiatry enough to get help. I eventually sorted myself out and now as a middle aged woman I have a reasonably good life. However, I never had children – maybe my experiences put me off – something I have wondered….
To read more of the blogs…