Notes from the Smoking Garden: by Max Dunbar

This week, we’re proud to present a new piece of original nonfiction by Max Dunbar! 


Notes from the Smoking Garden 

I’m walking across the hospital complex. It’s an autumn day, like the first breath of spring and the sky is blue from edge to edge. Thirty-six hours without sleep heightens the calm and beauty in the day. Great administrative buildings have a loveliness in this light, both incongruous and touching.

Last time I came here, I was a visitor. A good friend was sectioned in the back end of 2007. I went up some weekends and took her out to Hyde Park on four-hour leave. On New Year’s Eve we went around the pubs and then back to the smoking garden at the Airdale Lodge. The Lodge’s wings are clustered around the smoking garden. I see it from my window, a gorgeous self-contained panorama of flowers, trees, tiles and pathways. It’s another intimate example of this city’s talent to combine the urban and the rural.

That evening grew dark fast. I stood in the smoking garden with my friend, and in the shadows of the trees and the tower blocks and the freeways beyond, I felt very small and very alive.

My career as a mentalist began ten years ago with a colossal panic attack that nearly destroyed me. Since then I’d had phases of agoraphobia, depression, and suicidal depression, and although I had managed these conditions fairly well, was able to hold down a job, sustain relationships, and work creatively, I felt that, during those ten years, I had learned nothing at all. When I came across the line in Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First, where Tess says: ‘I just don’t see the point in repeating the same things over and over again, becoming more and more invisible, going to sleep and waking up, always doubting my own instincts, feeling either half alive or out of control’ I found myself nodding in agreement, and returning to the passage again.

‘How to be Sectioned’ – a brief guide for the destitute (with apologies to P G Wodehouse):

  • Develop significant and enduring mental health problems
  • Work hard, party hard, lose sleep and completely neglect your mental well-being
  • Lose it completely, go through a major depressive episode and have your housemate throw you out and call an ambulance
  • The system kind of does the rest.

Elizabeth Wurtzel quotes a great piece of dialogue from The Sun Also Rises: ‘How did you go bankrupt?’ ‘Gradually and then suddenly.’

I get in mid-afternoon with the following items:

  • Tote bag bought at a For Books’ Sake launch at the Star and Garter, bright pink with the legend I LOVE GIRLS WHO READ
  • Pair of jeans, Sonetti/Vintage 1981 t shirts
  • Memory stick
  • Nine Camel Lights
  • Wallet, cards, around thirty pounds in cash, keys, phone
  • Comfort books: Jay McInerney omnibus, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Lottie Moggach, Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe, Kalix the Werewolf

Day 1 is a non-event really. I go to sleep. I am woken up for meals and interviews with doctors, and blood tests. Then I crash again. From the first night I have a stark and fleeting memory of a torch flashed through the porthole on my door. Then it’s another day.

I have to admit, when I walked in here, I had the Oz theme playing in my head. That’s self-dramatizing somewhat, I’m not on a police section and this isn’t a jail, but nevertheless places such as this are dreaded by service users. Around fifty per cent of in-patients say they don’t feel safe in them. But the scary thing for me was how quickly I acclimatised. The only thing that got me down was having to talk to consultants and registrars, tell the same sad story over and over: I had made mistakes, let people down, grown too old. I came to this passage in McInerney’s Brightness Falls:

[…] none of which could yet begin to account for this sorrow he was feeling, which was far too vast to be merely his own, but which connected him with the bottomless reservoir of human suffering, most of all with the people he had hurt in his short, reckless life. All the harm he’d visited on others came back to him; he felt the shame of a hundred cruel, arrogant things he had thought or said or written.

All very unfortunate. And part of the reason I have been sleeping so much. A friend said on Facebook, after I had written: ‘Remember… it’s good material’ that the experience would ‘be so interesting – all the character detail’ but I’ve been so preoccupied with sleeping and reading that I haven’t really spoken to anyone. The lads in here are no physical threat but I don’t like being out of the room. The Airdale ain’t a bad lockup really, there’s a gym, freeview, an organ and a fucking XBox, but I don’t feel comfortable in the communal spaces. There’s this weird institutional smell that pervades them. It’s like something old and ill-used has been lowered on to a fire. It’s hard to put into words, but you would recognise it immediately.

My access to the smoking garden is restricted because I’m on fifteen-minute observation. If I want to go in the smoking garden, I need an escort from one of the staff and I hate asking for things. I hate dependence. A friend of mine, who has battled serious mental health problems for years, once told me: ‘I want to be in the system.’ That’s the polar opposite of my approach. Already I miss my worldly pleasures. I miss my laptop, my music, my local bars, breakfast at the Clock, the sun falling over the Social on a Friday evening, running the Meanwood Valley Trail, the alleys and ginnels of LS6. I miss the fresh air and outside. So I go ahead and ask.

In the garden, a woman with green hair cries: ‘Max!’ It’s Jayne, a regular at the Social. Jayne is a husky well-built hipster with a good line in penetrating stares. It turns out she’s been in here for two months. I had wondered why I hadn’t run into Jayne in the bars of late.

We talk and smoke. Jayne asks if I want some vodka.

‘Where’d you get vodka in here?’

‘It’s imaginary vodka.’

‘I see.’

‘Things are hard, Max.’

‘Is there anything I can do?’

‘Not really. It’s just no one understands where I’m coming from.’

‘Where are you coming from, Jayne?’

‘A place of healing. The planet Venus.’

Nut talk. I love it.

The nurse signals to go back in, and Jayne and I hug our goodbyes. Over my stay in the ward I see Jayne out here often. Alternately she’ll be friendly, deranged, confrontational, abusive. I remember a flash of déjà vu that I felt before I knew her: that we would meet in this place, some day.

On the way back to the ward the nurse allows that Jayne is ‘struggling’. The benefits of a clinical education.

Truth is, now I’ve caught up on my sleep, I feel a little stir crazy. No one here is allowed a razorblade, for obvious reasons, so with my glasses I look like Walter White at the beginning of ‘Live Free or Die’. Shouts, screams, rants and fireworks echo through the corridors.

In the smoking garden late at night and there’s a new arrival. An angry man is arguing with the staff. It appears that he’s gone out on a night, got drunk, acted up, been arrested and subsequently sent here on an s136. He’s complaining that he has to go to work tomorrow. He’s going to sue the staff, the hospital, the PCT, the city: he’s got it all worked out.

I feel like I’m finished. And yet I’m also thinking of a Don Draper quote: ‘Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.’

Day 3. I tried to walk today, and the bastards detained me. Section 5 (2) of the Mental Health Act 1983. The charge nurse complained that ‘You’ve been here for forty-eight hours and all you’ve done is sleep.’ Another guy said, ‘We don’t really know you. There’s no evidence that the risk has decreased.’ It annoys me. Worse, the autonomy I asked for hasn’t come to pass. I argue with them and this does not go down well. They act like I’ve won life’s lottery.

I distract myself with current events. Asda is in trouble for selling Hallowe’en costumes of mental health patients, complete with torn inmate uniform and wild eyes. The brand has the shit kicked out of it on Twitter. One blogger writes, ‘As a ‘mental patient’ I’m proud I was involved in the late-night flood of Twitter outrage over the costume, but also afterwards, challenging some of the stigma-fuelled views appearing because Asda’s bad taste was challenged.’

That is a depressing sentence. Let’s not define ourselves by these traumas and distresses. Leave the outrage to the fundamentalist cranks and Mary Whitehouse supporters. I’m a professional, a writer, a brother and son. Mental distress is a long way down the list in what makes up my identity. And if I ever hear myself composing an email to some press office or government department, saying ‘As a mental health service user, I am offended –‘ well, wind the shroud around me and lower me into the cold, cold grave.

Day 4. Parole hearing today. It doesn’t go well. Not only do the bastards not let me out, they extend the section to 28 days. I should have stayed outside the system. I prefer the disreputable, rock-and-roll, devil-may-care approach to mental illness. I feel calm, alert, level, but so sick of being locked up. I’m furious for a long time. Then I go to sleep.

This place is like a primary school except no one gets to grow up.

Jayne asks: ‘Have you reached the laughing phase yet?’

I think it’s coming. I think I’m getting there.

Last night I walked back to the ward with my escort. We passed the art wall. There is one really good picture called ‘Andy Warhol opens Leeds Kwik Save’ done white, red and black, a cluttered cityscape. The other is a mess of boxes and lines and words, like Chris Ware on a bad hangover.

‘That’s really good,’ the nurse says, pointing to the Andy Warhol picture, ‘but this other one, it doesn’t make sense at all.’

‘The connection between great art and mental illness has always been somewhat exaggerated,’ I say.

Day 5. Once the depression and anxiety is flushed out there is a feeling of claustrophobia that is somehow much worse. The condescending clockwatching attitude of the night staff. Sausages and potatoes served three times a day. Prissy ungrammatical warning signs plastered everywhere. I seriously consider picking up my chest of drawers and breaking the window-glass with it.

Friends visit with books and cigarettes. I have lots of female friends and the gang of long-term inmates, who sit at reception watching the doors, are unnerved by the parade of glamorous women. My sister comes up from London. She’s an ad exec down there. I have great respect for her. She brings me a laptop and some DVDs.

I run into a Russian guy in the smoking garden. He’s a tall combative fellow from Ward 4. ‘You know this woman, Elijah,’ he says. ‘Very beautiful, Muslim woman. You know, normally, when there is a beautiful woman – she is my girlfriend. But this person, she just found me a house.’ His name is Carlos. Carlos has a ponytail and a radiant, weatherbeaten face. ‘The council say they will pay the bond, and the rent – but the estate agent said no, because the bond is from the council! So I am taking Leeds City Council to Strasbourg and getting twenty grand in compensation.’

‘I wish you every luck in that regard,’ I said.

‘Are you gay?’ he asked me.

‘A lot of people ask me that.’

‘That’s a good thing,’ Carlos said, ‘because a man who is in touch with his feminine side – you get to fuck all the women.’ He smashed his fist into his armpit in the universal victory sign, and then he turned to the escort. ‘Ah, I need food.’

‘It’s food time now.’

‘Ah. You should be telling me! I have been in the pub! Where is food?’ And he disappeared inside.

Day 6. Nina came today. A force of positive energy in a dark world. I met her in 2007, in the Cornerhouse on Manchester’s Oxford Road, when she was still drinking. Shortly after this meeting the local literary/academic cabal screwed her over, her relationship fell apart, and she hit rock bottom. She’s been sober for six years, currently studying for a drama PhD in London; her play ‘Sherry and Narco,’ based on her novel, will be showcased at the Arcola in the New Year.

We talk about books, politics, old times. Nina tells a great anecdote about Obama’s campaign manager. Our wicked, unforced laughter echoes around the canteen.

Nina brings books, cigarettes, chocolate, a new tote, Guatemalan worry dolls.

We went into the smoking garden. There were many people out, the sun was shining, music played from somewhere. I suddenly realise: this is real, this is no game. I can’t breathe for a second.

The Big Chief of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest divides his fellow inmates into ‘Acutes’ and ‘Chronics’. I’ve more or less made the same distinction.

Acutes: Darius the South African chef. Giz the bipolar biker guy. Carlos the big Russian. Fred the middle aged Hampshire traveller. The long haired fellow who is always ordering takeaway.

Chronics: The Chinese kid who never speaks and is always collapsing in the corridors. Bilal the elderly Muslim who never speaks, except to ask me for cigarettes. Andy the jittery bald guy with an irritating voice and one change of clothing.

You can talk to Acutes. You can’t talk to Chronics. I’ve tried to comfort the Chinese kid, when I’ve seen him sprawled in the corridor, and got nothing.

I’m differentiating between wards now. Ward 3, where I’m at, is fairly civilised. Ward 4 has a big amphetamine problem. Ward 1 I’m told is the psycho ward. There the rooms are stripped of all sharp corners and hard surfaces, anything that could be turned into a weapon. But in Ward 1, you can smoke wherever you like.

At night, outside, Christian shouts: ‘Hey, it’s Saturday night! Let’s not talk about mental health. Let’s talk about sex!’

Day 7. I meet with the solicitor today for the appeal against the section, which will take place later this week. I almost don’t want to go. Finding another house will be a hassle. I feel like I’m becoming institutionalised. I understand then how people end up spending months or even years here.

Outside I talk with one of the nurses. She’s telling me about Christmas on the ward. She says they try to give everyone day leave, but with some guys, that’s not possible. And some of these guys don’t get visited. Not even on Christmas Day.

At some point, the woman who I am now in a relationship with came to visit me. Our first proper date was in the canteen of a locked psychiatric ward. We talk for a long time.

She brings cake. I put it on the front counter and it’s gone in an hour. Mental patients love sweet things.

I get a call from a lawyer I know in London and we talk for a long time. Mood changes quickly in the Airdale but I feel positive, full of energy.

Things start happening very quickly.

I get an appeal hearing. My consultant takes me off escort, so I have the run of the place. Then he lifts the section altogether, and it’s like staying in a free backpacker hostel where they give out meds with the morning milk. I find another house in Hyde Park.

I talk a lot with the other guys coming off section. They are bright, motivated lads, struggling to find accommodation. I feel lucky to have a job.

On the day of discharge I say goodbye to Jayne. I offer to visit, but I don’t know her last name and she’s so screwed up she barely recognises me. I feel sad to think of her locked up in here for god knows how long after I’m gone.

Back at work. The new meds are fine. I find the person I was at that time hard to comprehend.

I go to plays and comedy nights with my girlfriend, the woman who brought me cake on the ward. We drink red wine and watch cookery shows and Borgen. Every Sunday we meet another couple and do the pub quiz at the local arts café as another weekend drains itself into exhausted darkness. Maybe I’m growing up at last – who knows, maybe they’ll make a bourgeoisie of me yet.

I still follow the mental health debates on social media, and keep in touch with old friends. I think of all the people I’ve encountered who are out of work and struggling with treatment paths. I’ve been high-functioning most of my life, and still partly think of myself as a freak who somehow got under the radar, like that John Cheever quote: ‘It was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously.’

We grow up in the world with a feeling of illegitimacy and sorrow, a sense that we are not quite right and travelling under dodgy papers. But perhaps the truth is that this was always an illusion. And the things that make us difficult and strange are not what isolates us but part of the universal spirit that is what it means to be human. It’s not that we walk among you still. It’s that we never truly left.


Max Dunbar is the Reviews Editor for 3:AM magazine. Find him on Twitter: @maxdunbar1.


The Real Story publishes original nonfiction writing including personal essays, reportage, narrative journalism and short memoirs. See our About page for submission guidelines.