Tuesday, 20 November 2012


Squall, 1986, by Andrew Wyeth
The fancy frocks and summer hats belie
the sorry tortured soul beneath the     surface cracks
as  on her hollow haunted face     mouth gapes 
as  she smiles that sorry twisted smile  she smiles 
revealing rotten teeth that stain
her muddled thoughts  with filthy words
and for a while she listens
as  the budgies  cheep inside her head
and peck away at fractured brain.

She whines  the wasps  within her chest
will stop her heart unless she gets
(‘just one tiny’)  cigarette and offers
passing males her drooping breasts
and  (filthy)  sex  (she hates)
just for ‘one tiny zzzig-err-raare-t’. 
(The men who live inside her head
deride say they’d rather die
than go to bed with her.) 
The men (outside) refer    (unkindly)
to her mangled pock-marked frame
and jeer at her, call her ugly names,
jeer  and joke as  she resorts
to the only way she can to cope.

She contorts that tortured face of hers
grimaces  to quell the pain
all for the want the need of nicotine
and black  clouds gather in her brain
and erupt into a sudden squall,
she yells and screams, head-butts the wall,
punches  hard her cheek and then returns
to (some sort of) (troubled) peace again.

She thinks for a while then smiles
that sorry twisted smile she smiles,
shows the males her drooping breasts
and offers  sex for cigarettes.

Anna :o]

In the good/bad old days’ institutionalism in psychiatric hospitals bred its own strange culture, some patients on long-stay and acute wards, to ‘self-medicate’ their symptoms, to stave off ennui, chain-smoked and within this culture existed tobacco barons and easy lays.

The tobacco barons need not necessarily be smokers rather those that saw (and grasped) opportunity, increasing their personal wealth and their status in the patient pecking order.  One cigarette ‘borrowed’ would yield a return of three-to-five, sometimes more and daily the baron was able to sell  (the equivalent of in returned 'borrowed' plus 'interest') full packs for money, the more vulnerable smokers sometimes ‘owed’ their next days ration of cigarettes and  in essence held a continuous debt.

The ‘easy lays’ – not necessarily women but mostly so – were of two kinds, one would allow men to have sex with her paying with cigarettes and the other pay for cigarettes with sex.

Acute and long stay (apart from the ‘elderly’) wards were ‘open-doored’ – these only being locked when trouble occurred and this freedom and the hospitals extensive grounds allowed this culture to thrive.

After the closure of psychiatric hospitals there existed the problem of where to place institutionalised patients who would never be able to rehabilitate and live independently in the community.

Added to this burden of unwanted institutionalised souls were the upcoming patients with enduring mental health problems who would have joined their ranks.  Initially some were placed in NHS ‘rehab’ community units – most (if not all?) have long since closed, the rest in private nursing homes and rehab hostels - or just hostels -and some, where attempts were made to rehabilitate to independent living, now are homeless or if lucky(?) bed down in doss houses, etc.

The lucky(?) few institutionalised ex-patients who found a (locked)nursing home prepared to take them, as well as losing the only (hospital) life they had known through much of their adulthood – some even earlier – are further restrained by new laws re coercive healthism (no smoking in the premises – unless in a tiny room devoid of ‘entertainment’ – have you ever tried to fit twenty men who want (and need) to smoke in a tiny room where friction will  occur as a result of this sardine-tin existence? – to the wonderful well-intentioned Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults (SVA)  (no grey areas recognised – the world is black and white.)

An odd tobacco baron exists here and so do the easy lays, but the easy lays (of either kind) are not allowed to engage in sex – well neither is anyone really – for under the SVA we have to protect one vulnerable adult from another vulnerable adult…and so their wants and needs are stifled…their new institution more a prison than the old asylums.

I hated psychiatric hospitals but their closure offered nothing in its place….

Rant over.

Thanks to Tess at The Mag for the inspiration for this post.   Also linked to dVerse~Poets Pub Open Link Night hosted by the excellent Brian Miller.


Tigerbrite said...

An raw descriptive piece. I wondered why and appreciate your explanation. Superbly done.

Berowne said...

I always like a post that teaches me something; yours certainly did.

Sue said...

A disturbing read, this is...not just the poem itself, but the explanation.

We need better mental health care and hospitalization benefits in the US. It's a tragedy.


Brian Miller said...

ugh...have spent my time in hospitals....and so i know the reality of your tale/verse...it is an intriguing culture...and develops into a subculture as well...it should be disturbing as it is to be there...

anthonynorth said...

Exceptionally powerful and informative.

Jinksy said...

How about taking pity on us oldies? Could you increase the size of typeface you are using? The rather ornate style of the letters, coupled with the small size is really hard to read, which defeats the purpose of a blog, methinks...
Apart from that, a serious message lies within your words...

Luke Prater said...

Very real in its grit and twist-turn descriptive nature. The end-note appreciated but I wonder how it might have been preserved in my mind without that? Great piece, Anna

Arron Shilling said...

Hi anna

this is an excellent subject for consideration and you expose it artfully and with close-up character and narrative held in quick beats and tight schemes.

I am familiar with the topic but you really kept me inside the write as it went and the background really adds dimensional expanse.


Daydreamertoo said...

Wow..such an eye opener Anna. I agree with you on all of this. When they closed the NHS mental institutions they put nothing else there for these people to go into. So many were left to wander the streets without any kind of back up for them in place at all.
Thank goodness for people like you who care enough to care about them.
I suppose these type of barons exist in prisons too. Where there is a need for something ..something (a body for sex) always to sell.
Fabulous, sad, writing

Claudia said...

oh heck...this is heart breaking...i'm just lost for words..

Victoria said...

I was a student nurse in the early 60's and did my psych training in a 5000 bed hospital. Let's just say you paint an all-too-accurate painting here. I learned more than I ever wanted to in that rotation.

Linda said...

Thank you for sharing this unnamed lady and caring about her fate. I care too. I feel desperately sad for her and even though what we offer today is horrid, it is better than the lobotomies and torturous deaths of the past generations. Maybe if we legalized pot with an agreement that all of the tax revenues went to support mental illness, inroads might be made, (not that I am in favor of such a law, but alcohol sure brings in tons of revenue). I do not know any other way the funds needed could be raised, Tigerbrite.

ayala said...

A disturbing and powerful write. You shine a light it.

Tess Kincaid said...

Disturbing...raw...powerful...thanks for the follow up message, as well...

Jenny Woolf said...

I too have wondered what the alternative is to psychiatric hospitals. The only alternative is probably lots of time and money spent per patient. My only mentally ill relative committed suicide at the age of 30 because he was smart enough to see the future for him, tragically. He actually said that he did not want this. I hope that better progress will soon be made in understanding and treating mental illness.

Green Speck said...

There is a lot to learn in these words ... you really touch the senses !!!

Helena said...

What a fabulously intense piece of work, Anna. Mental health still doesn't receive the respect it well deserves. These aspects come together wonderfully in your poem.
However *ahem*... some feel which 'typeface' a blog is displaying needs addressing a little more urgently, though...*cough cough*...?¿?

hyperCRYPTICal said...

Thankyou for your kind comments folks.

Jinksy and Helena - your observations taken on-board and will be followed...I will not type little (hopefully) - this has been pointed out to me before - I must have helluva good contact (lemses) for I do not see it...

Anna :o]

Luke Prater said...

ooh it's still so good, sister

~T~ said...

How sad...

Anonymous said...

hi anna, you have painted a strong portrait of this woman. you must have the gift of deep empathy.

hyperCRYPTICal said...

Thanks for your welcome comments folks.

(Just read the post on Chrome Browser at it is difficult to decipher whereas on Internet Explorer it is as clear as day...)

Anna :o]

James Rainsford said...

A brilliant commentary upon addiction and its very sad consequences. This is powerful, disturbing, and written with a relentless authenticity.

Stafford Ray said...

And what a rant!
There is always pressure to deny sexual expression in anyone who is under some sort of control.
It does not have to be an institution that does it; religions do it big time, some with tragic consequences like female genital mutilation and the Pope banning condoms in AIDS riddled Africa.
But your poem and explanation do paint a very sad picture of human beings reduced to such desperation by addiction and mental illness, that renders sexual favours less valuable than a cigarette!
Very sad Anna.

Friko said...

I don’t know how you can bear to know all this so clearly. I realise that ignorance will never change anything, but how can you sleep and not explode in fury?

It’s all your fault and the fault of your poem that I feel like this.

Old Ollie said...

gritty poem - I dig it