Tuesday, 9 June 2009

My experience of a Swiss psychiatric clinic (2)

The next morning, while walking to the station through the rain, my boyfriend and I formulated a story that I was going to England to update my Employment Law for my professional qualification in Human Resources – this was perfect because I would not be away for long and if I came back for the weekend it was a natural break between courses. . I purchased our tickets from the machine rather than going to the ticket desk – people knew me – they would surely notice I was buying a one way ticket to Meiringen and everyone knew what that meant.

J asked me how I was every 5 minutes. I just wanted to bawl my eyes out as I got more and more anxious – what was I doing? I had no clue as to who I was any more and the outside world became one big blur. The train journey was tense and I chain smoked at any opportunity. I felt confused, scared, numb, sad all at once and wished that the clinic was closer to home. With connections the journey took at best 1½ hours, at worst 2 hours even though it was only two valleys away as the crow flies. I was paranoid that everyone on the train could see me and my case and knew that I was mental. John was really calming and I felt guilty that he had to go through this experience. I remember that I kept apologising to him and he kept reassuring me – how draining that must have been for him.

We arrived at the destination station and although I had printed a map from the internet I couldn’t work out in which direction I should take to get to the clinic. So we called a taxi – I was so embarrassed that the taxi driver would know that I was being admitted, particularly when he dropped us off explaining that the entrance in front of us was for admissions. The drive wasn’t far to get there and to get to the admissions entrance, located in a large three storey building we passed the clinic tennis courts and the Funicular railway that takes you to the top of the Reichenbach Falls made famous by Sherlock Holmes. All was looking very high class.

I introduced myself to the receptionist (my boyfriend had joked that he looked more like the one who should be admitted) and we were asked to wait in the vestibule conservatory which looked out onto the gardens in front of the clinic. I was feeling very anxious by this stage and was nearly in tears – what was I doing?! I didn’t want to leave my boyfriend. We waited what seemed like an eternal five minutes for someone to arrive to take me to my home for the next week (or so I thought).

One thing I noticed about the clinic was that no-one looked like a nurse or doctor. In England it is very formal – suits and professionalism but in Switzerland I was likely to see my doctor in jeans. I didn’t mind this at all and felt comfortable as I think that suits create a formal barrier. Nurses both male and female at the clinic wore their own casual clothes and a name badge (which surprised me – think of the sharp pin on the back that some nutter could grab). My nurse for my admission was I think some kind of trainee, very pleasant and not great English but I managed to stumble through my German enough to be understood. She led us out of the building we were in across the forecourt and car park, past a restaurant (restaurant!) towards a two story building covered in overlapping blue/grey tiles which was open at one side of a square and overlooked a grass courtyard. Another building was attached to one corner of the square and this housed the thermal bath (wow – a spa!) and treatment rooms. I was led into a building labelled both old age care (I realised after a while that it was for geriatrics with mental health problems and not in fact anorexics) and emergency “acute” ward. The “akut” ward was the “closed ward” my doctor had spoke of.

This was to be my first experience of being locked up – all the carers, nurses and doctors had big bunches of keys and I came to spend many hours trying to figure out how I could get hold of a set without them knowing. Nora, my nurse assigned to me unlocked the door to the ward and led me and my boyfriend inside, closing and locking the door behind. We were led along a corridor with identical wide, white doors labelled with numbers or “Bad” (bathroom), “Besprechen” (meeting room) and suchlike. I was first led to a small medical room and asked to take my coat off. How humiliating – I was searched for sharp objects. I had kind of worked out that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to take my Gillette Venus razor “inside” and had to resort to hair removing cream (no way I was going to look like a gorilla when my boyfriend finally saw me again) but I was still shocked I was experiencing treatment like I was some kind of criminal in a police station, but I understood why they had to check – after all, there were a lot of nutters admitted who probably had whole knives on their person.

I was weighed (63 kilos – oooh, lost two since five months before without even trying), height measured, asked when I last had sex, bottom probed etc, etc, (Ok I am lying about the last two) and then we were taken to the “Besprechung” room where there was not one, but two other people, myself, my boyfriend and my new nurse. The doctor introduced himself (he looked so young how could he possibly be able to help me – I would give him a chance to prove himself though) as did another (male) nurse. They all sat there like it was an interview panel with pens and paper and a file in front of them. I didn’t like this. They asked me if I wanted to talk in German or English (English for this although I was embarrassed by it) and did I want my boyfriend present (No, because I hadn’t told him the full story and now was not the time or place). I was waiting for them to start taping the interview but they just took notes instead. John was released outside to smoke a packet of fags no doubt.

I began to talk. I cried. I stopped talking because I was too busy crying. Someone got me a fruit tea (one of many cups I was to drink in there), they interrogated me (every question to me in that state felt like a grilling) and finally they called my boyfriend back in the room. They asked him what I had been like. Now, my boyfriend is naturally suspicious of questions and of hospital like places, so I knew he wasn’t really going to lay it on thick. But he was as honest as he could be, the main worry for him was that he didn’t understand what was going on. It was surreal even to me, and I was the one who had agreed to go there.

The whole admission process took about two hours. Eventually I was shown to my allocated room for the night. It was a large, ground floor room with two “hospital” type beds in, overlooking a grass courtyard. To the other side of the courtyard were some outside tables and chairs where there was an old grey haired tramp (or so he looked) dressed in denim and smoking roll ups. The patio doors from my room to a small glass conservatory which led to this courtyard were locked. The other window next to my bed looking out was also locked. I started to feel oh so slightly claustrophobic.

While my boyfriend looked on, Nora let me unpack my few belongings and checked each item for more forbidden items. She took my mobile phone charger, iPod and charger and my purse. We were only allowed our mobile phones between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., they would be charged in the nurse’s station. If we needed money we could ask for it again from the nurse’s station. She finally took my medication to be stored in a safe place, presumably to prevent me from taking an overdose. From now on, my tablets would be counted out and issued to me at strict timings throughout the day, usually with mealtimes.

The time came for me to say goodbye to my boyfriend, J. Poor guy, he looked more shell shocked than me and I knew he was twitching at even stepping foot in an institution, let alone the shock that his girlfriend was seriously ill. Still, I reassured him I would be out next week. As we passed the smoking room (yes, smoking is allowed in Switzerland) and I thanked my stars that I wasn’t in the UK where smoking was banned, I became less and less confident. My J was going home – I wasn’t. The doors were finally unlocked for J to go home and I gave him a hug. It was a bear hug like I will never forget and a lot of unspoken words were passed between us.

The door closed behind him. I knew he would come and visit at the weekend.

I returned to my room alone and sad. While I placed my belongings in some kind of order in the lockable cupboards provided, I reflected on the morning and the emotions that had been brought up. Here I was in near isolation, exhausted, weepy, knowing that I wanted to die but unable to explain why, wanting my boyfriend desperately, worrying that he was going to leave me like the last one had. I felt totally alone. As I put my wash things in the small bathroom I noticed that even the door didn’t have a lock and that everything was nailed or screwed down with no sharp edges or potential weapons of self harm.

I finally collapsed onto my bed huddled in a ball and wept, thinking all the time what a failure I was.

I couldn’t even do that alone. Every five minutes it seemed that my self pity was interrupted with questions about my medical insurance, was I OK, did I know it was lunchtime (I was most definitely NOT hungry) and that it was time to take my medication. Would I ever get any peace I wondered?

I ventured out of my room and along the corridor to the kitchen and dining area. All of a sudden, people kept introducing themselves, shaking hands and asking my name as the Swiss do. I knew they were trying to make me feel at ease but I just wanted to be left alone. When the meal wagon arrived (a large metal cabinet with rows of ready prepared trays) it was explained how to find the tray with my name and how to clear up afterwards.

I nibbled at my food and couldn’t wait to bolt back to my room, my semi safe haven. Occasionally I would glance sideways at the other patients. M would rock backwards and forwards in his chair, seated at a table well away from the rest of us. I couldn’t help but stare at him – couldn’t anyone see how funny he looked, rocking each time he ate a mouthful of food. He was clearly a bit mad. Then there was Frau X who stood back until everyone had collected their tray before she would take hers, nervously stepping in. T would scrounge everyone’s leftovers and being on the large side I wondered if she was meant to be eating them. I tried to avoid the men as they could have been sex attackers for all I knew. I felt bad for viewing the other patients in this way as after all, they were all lovely once I got over my initial suspicion and I was no different to any of them (except for Herr M, who one of the nurses put was “just a bit mad” when I complained about his constant screaming all day. We never saw him but the nurses would frequently check on him especially when it sounded like he would kick the door down. He was a definite candidate for plastic utensils and crockery. (We were allowed real knives and forks, except we had to ask for the bread to be cut with a breadknife which was then locked away again by a member of staff).

After lunch I again curled up into a ball and varied between sleeping and crying. I was so scared and confused. The nurses checked on me about ever half an hour, taking blood pressure checks and pulse checks, asking me if I was OK and finally a humiliating physical check by the doctor. Humiliating because I felt exposed and vulnerable despite the female nurse observing and I was worried the doctor would find something medically wrong with me. Finally I was left alone again.

The cleaners came in and washed the floor and bathroom. I lay curled up on the bed, disinterested. I crept under my duvet after they went and slept some more. I felt numb and confused but began to feel more comfortable in my little bubble.

Nora came in and took my insurance details (the all important medical insurance which would fund my stay at the clinic). She also checked what food I would like daily from a checklist. I could choose a continental breakfast or muesli, fruit juice or milk, a yogurt. I could be vegetarian if I liked. I selected bread and conserve for breakfast with a plain yogurt and a no fish dinner. We had menu plans given to us in advance for the week so we had some idea of what we were to eat.

It is usual in Switzerland for the main meal to be at lunchtime and to have a light supper. All our mealtimes were regimented – breakfast between 7.30 – 8.10 a.m., lunch between 11.30 - 12.10 and evening supper at 5.30 – 6.10. We received our medication from the medical staff at the same time. There were no extra snacks unless we shopped in town, which we had to ask permission for and were usually restricted to how long we could leave the unit for. To begin with I was allowed half an hour a day on my own, presumably so I didn’t have time to go and get plastered on alcohol. But at the beginning I had no intention of leaving my room, I was happy with my duvet and book. I read the three books that I had with me over and over again. Soon it was time for evening dinner, so I crept from my room and waited nervously by the lunch wagon. I wasn’t really hungry to be honest, but didn’t want the nurses to be hassling me to get up and go and eat. When my meal finally arrived on the meal wagon, I snatched it and sat in a corner.


  1. Sounds.... very European. Ah yes I remember the shaking hands thing from Germany and the Netherlands. Every day. This wasn't in hospital though, but just generally.

    Thanks for posting this, its very interesting to see how it compares with the UK.

  2. I'm not sure what I was expecting it to be like but lets just say after week one I was begging them to let me home. I was there another 6 weeks (!!) and only got out because it was the rugby world cup and I told them if I didnt see England play I would go home anyway, which wouldnt look good on their statistics! (Which is what one of the junior doctors told me to say to the revered head Psychiatrist!)