What I’m Reading Wednesday

9 Jan

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Psychiatric nurse Stuart Townsend recounts his days training as a student mental health nurse at St. Paul’s Hospital in the UK in the late 1970s. His memoir “Asylum Bound” describes his experiences as a naive young adult straight out of university entering a profession he knew very little about.

His stories are intriguing and often times sad. From shaving a dead corpse to coming face-to-face with suicide, his experiences are fascinating. Among the pain and heartache, Stuart also weaves humor into his storytelling.

Released in May 2012, “Asylum Bound” offers a personal and emotional glimpse into an asylum.

Here is my Q and A with Stuart:

Q: What made you decide to write a memoir about your experience training as a student mental health nurse?

A: I meet up with the old crowd who I worked with about twice a year, and the old stories are swapped over a pint of beer in the pub. I seem to remember vividly so much of those frightening early years — the training years — and a number of these friends had kept saying “there should be a book about it.” On holiday with my wife I started to jot down some themes and, on my return, decided how to shape the book. I thought through in my mind about a combination of the James Herriot books (All Creatures Great and Small) — which would enable individual stories to be told, along with a Bill Bryson factual flavor — I wanted to give the reader a chance to understand the terrible history, but in a simple way. As I wrote I shared the chapters with friends of mine in New Zealand (who are psychiatrists) which kept the accuracy correct, and my friends at the old hospital (who sometimes had bits of knowledge which fleshed out the story).

Q: Did you journal during your years of training? Did you find it easy or difficult to reflect back on the memories during that time?

A: I didn’t journal, but we have recounted these stories for so long that they have developed an oral tradition! My memories are very sharp from that time as the events were SO new/frightening/exciting that they are strong brain traces.

Q: At one point in your book, a district nurse says to you, “I don’t know how you can keep sane with all those people you visit.” In reading of your experiences, how DID you keep sane?

A: I think that for the first few years I separated out mental illness from “normality,” seeing the “patients” as “patients” — different from “us.” It perhaps took me longer than most to understand that there is a continuum in the spectrum — not a separation. In many ways Percy, the gentleman who runs through the book, was my road to Damascus in my thinking around mental illness. He taught me so much, and paid so high a price. Those first few years — my training years — were focused mainly on the severely mentally ill. Much of the visible presentation was a combination of the illness and the iatrogenic (i.e. that caused by the treatments, the side effects). Their presentation was SO chronic, so damaged, so “other world” that I failed to see then the whole picture.

Q: As a student nurse you were exposed to very difficult situations. Was there ever a time that you doubted continuing on in the field?

A: I don’t think I ever considered for a moment giving up. I absolutely LOVED it — it was the most thrilling part of my life — it was a flooding of emotional stimuli that could never be repeated. I was nervous and fearful, but the people around me were so supportive of my childish enthusiasm that they guided me and cared for me — turning me, gradually, into an adequate nurse. It took another ten years before I could say I was a damned good  nurse. From 1990 to 2000 were the years when I can honestly say “I made a difference.”

“Psychiatric nursing seemed centered around the devastating emotional pain of other people’s lives.” — Asylum Bound

Q: What is your favorite memory from your student nurse days?

A: That first shift on the sick ward when I fed patients and shaved a dead body. The practicality and new experiences were so strong I could have stayed all day and night. It was a different world.

Q: During your training did you ever want to throw in the towel and quit?

A: Never.

Q: You often encountered violence, death and suicide attempts; how did you handle burnout from the job?

A: I was never good with violence and still find violence is something alien to my mind. My wife is really good with it — get a violent psychopath breaking into our house and I’d make sure she was in front of me. I could cope well if the violence was part of illness, but not if it was someone who thrived on violence and threat. The suicide issue is different. This was the one that really got me. I could never push away the sense of responsibility for completed suicides. Suicides cause so much pain to so many people — it might release the person who does it but it’s impact on family/friends/carers is massive. Percy was one that, even now, I well up with tears when I think of him. He set the tone for others. I can reflect that, due to my efforts, many more would have suicided had it not been for me. But this doesn’t lessen the impact of those that, despite my help, suicided. It cut me up very badly each time. It is the part of the job that I don’t think I could cope with again.

Q: Your student training ends tragically with a suicide. How did you work through this loss and continue on with a career in mental health nursing?

A: I continued because a) I loved the work, b) If I didn’t then Percy’s death would have been for nought, c) I felt that I could stop this happening again — which took me time to realize that I could impact positively on other peoples’ lives but not irradicate suicides. As said, this area is the real toughie.

Q: Are you planning to write another book?

A: I may, but I’m not sure the memories are as vivid. I think about it but don’t want to do a book just for the sake of it. I have to have a purpose.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I have a number of books on the go. I have just completed “Team of Rivals” (which the movie Lincoln is based on). I’ve just started on “The Influencing Machine” by Mike Jay which is a retelling of the James Tilly Matthews delusion from the 1800s (mentioned in my book). My bath book (I always read in the bath!) is “Besieged” by Barbara Demick, a journalist who lived in Sarajevo during the siege. My conservatory book is Theodore H Whites book on Nixon (perhaps my favorite character from history — he is so complex/multi-faceted/intellectual and yet damaged that I find his story (and White is such a brilliant writer) addictive). I read and re-read this.

Asylum Bound can be purchased at Amazon. For more information visit Stuart’s website.

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