Finding myself sectioned

by Aisling Jago

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Photo of woman's hand holding a cigarette over an ashtray, with scrunched-up tissues next to it
Photo by Laura Casalini, licence: CC-BY-NC-SA

Editor’s note: We are so grateful to Aisling (not her real name) for providing us with the following unvarnished account of her experience of a mental health crisis.

“Are you sure about this?” he said, as I slid the white gold band adorned with a diamond from my ring finger, and passed it back to him across the café table.

“Yes, I’m sure.” Little did I know that in that moment, Pandora’s box had been well and truly ripped open, and goddamn it, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get it shut again.

It was an otherwise innocuous June day in an upmarket, pedestrian borough of South-West London, famed for its yummy mummies, posh smoothies, and chain restaurants.

However, despite the suburban setting, this small action was about to set the wheels in motion for what can only be described as complete and utter hell on earth. Charles Dickens’ Hard Times had nothing on the next few months of my life.

I remember I was dressed in my workout gear: I’d just left a class at my new gym, and had come to see him for this last, final, decisive action over a coffee.

Passing back the engagement ring in itself was such an easy thing to do. It wasn’t so very hard to call curtains on a life that had barely just begun. What I hadn’t bargained for was everything that came next.

We walked back towards the train station. He was on his way to a band practice: he was a pianist in a jazz band. I clutched his arm, but let him go as I took a different path towards my new apartment with two new housemates.

I woke with a pain running through my body, and sweat drenching my bedclothes. The severity of what had occurred was only just rearing its ugly head.

By this stage, I was beginning to behave a bit erratically. I was no longer sleeping in my bedroom, nuzzled in a small and compact townhouse with a view across neighbouring rose gardens and surfboards.

No, by now I’d migrated to the sofas. When one feels uneasy, it’s easier to sleep somewhere that doesn’t require the commitment of a bed. You can fall asleep as and when you wish: you don’t have to decide on a time to enter into oblivion.

“What are you doing here?” asked my puzzled yet drunk housemate as she entered the apartment, alongside her slightly sozzled friend. “Oh nothing, sorry, is this weird!?” After a brief chat about her ex-boyfriend in the kitchen, I slunk back to my bed, embarrassed and ashamed.

When I woke in the morning, the routine was exactly the same. Clip open the back door, walk down to sit near the jasmine plants, which were in full bloom at this stage, and light the first of many cigarettes.

Click. The lighter’s flint catches on the gas, and poof, the flame shoots upwards, like a signal or a genie in a bottle. This was just the beginning. Six months later, after two psych wards, and an ill-fated move to the Persian Gulf, I’d find myself sectioned.

The Cinderella service

Over the past few years, mental health has had much more attention in the national press than it used to, finally gaining some of the prominence it deserves. Initiatives such as the Heads Together campaign, run by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, are doing great work to make sure people across the country feel good in their day-to-day mental well-being. And other high profile celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax have also come forward to discuss their struggles with mental health.

In 2013 the government committed to achieving parity of esteem between physical and mental health. However, there is still a very long way to go, with mental health still losing out compared to other aspects of health in the NHS. In one study[1]Funding and staffing of NHS mental health providers: still waiting for parity, King’s Fund 2018., it was shown that funding for mental health trusts rose by 2.5 percent in 2016/17, much lower than the 6 per cent boost received by other acute areas of the NHS. In January 2019 the NHS Long Term Plan made a commitment that expenditure on mental health care will grow faster than the overall NHS budget. It needs to. At present it’s estimated that only about 40% of people with mental health conditions receive treatment. To increase that proportion to 70% by 2033/34 the NHS in England would need to more than double its mental health spending to around £27 billion[2]Securing the future: funding health and social care to the 2030s, IFS and The Health Foundation 2018..

Certainly, mental health remains a topic that leaves many curious: especially when it comes to being sectioned, where someone is forcibly detained under the 1983 Mental Health Act. What is it actually like to be sectioned? What’s it like when your mental health is deemed to be beyond what’s healthy and could potentially put your life, or even others, in danger? Well, this is a story of what it felt like when I was sectioned.

A sectioning essentially means when someone is forcibly detained under the 1983 Mental Health Act. In 2018, the Act was used over 50,000 times, which shows an increase of over 30 percent in the last ten years. Furthermore, over one in one hundred of us will develop a psychotic illness in our lives, and one in four of us will have some form of the mental health issue to combat.

Sectioning still carries a huge amount of stigma, despite the fact it can actually be a very useful turning point in the lives of many people – finally getting them to have the help that they’ve needed all along. The reality is, however, it’s very difficult to get someone sectioned under the law. By law, “detaining someone under the Mental Health Act because they are no longer able to make good decisions for themselves, and they pose a risk to those around them or to themselves, is the last resort”, reports Vice.

Getting sectioned

I grabbed my toothbrush, some clothes, underwear, my MacBook and a hairdryer and stuffed them into an overnight bag. They’d come for me! Two burly ambulance ex-servicemen and a psychiatrist were in the sitting room of my grandfather’s apartment, where I was staying.

A psychiatrist had come to see me earlier in the day and it was obvious that they thought I was manic. I think my proclivity for picking up knives and holding them to my arms had also contributed to the general atmosphere of panic and trauma in those around me. I still maintain that my sectioning occurred because of a very high-stress environment and my attempts at dealing with it, but again, that’s just my assessment of the situation.

Finally, they bundled me into the ambulance, and drove me to a hospital in the suburbs of a university town not so far away. I remember on my first evening I found being there, and out of my previous environment, somewhat relaxing. I lay down in the ‘recourse room’ – a pale green, airless room that looked like a children’s soft play room, with bean bags, soft chairs and mats on the floor like those you’d use for gym at school, and watched a movie – with little insight into how disturbing I’d find the whole experience further down the line.

It was January 11th, so I’d managed to hold it together, just about, through New Year. I had a favourite thing to say to my parents and family, that was: ‘You’ve ruined my life!’ and then I’d just scream it and repeat it over and over. I didn’t care if it was 3am on Christmas Eve and I’d gone into my parents’ room in our holiday cottage in Wales and shouted it, or whether they’d popped over for afternoon tea – I’d scream it then, too.

I’d also scream that I wanted to commit suicide. I didn’t care who was listening: I’d scream it. I even once went to a Bible Study at a family friend’s house in the village and walked in in floods of tears screaming that I wanted to end it all. Not very palatable for the three elderly women enjoying reading scripture on Gideon in Judges and trying to have a rich tea biscuit.

I’d been behaving a bit more erratically before the sectioning, but nothing completely out of character. I’d been smoking lots of cigarettes. On one occasion, I went back to a man’s house who I’d never met before and spent the afternoon drinking beer and smoking roll-ups. He was Polish and cooked me some sausages, bread, and onions as I told him that my family wanted to lock me up in a psychiatric ward. We listened to Lizzo’s ‘Boys’ and kissed.

On another occasion, and I’m not proud of this, I turned up at my parents’ house in a taxi, went in and started to smash things up. I picked up a knife in order to cut my own arms. I smashed bottles in the pantry: thick globules of tomato ketchup covering the floor. I smoked cigarettes inside their house (they’re non-smokers). I told them in text messages that I wanted to kill them for what they’d done to me. And what they’d done, in my mind, was completely and utterly ruin my life.

Earlier in the year, I’d come downstairs from my parents’ bedroom holding a Stanley knife to my wrist when some of their friends had come round for afternoon tea. They’d managed to calm me down, take the knife away, and make me have some chocolate cake and a cup of tea. I don’t think I ever really wanted to hurt myself, and I only ever did very superficially with a razor blade. I made some small cuts on my forearm and watched as the blood seeped through the small wounds. Each one had two distinct stripes as they’d been made with a leg razor. They stung for days afterward. Nothing dramatic: but I was trying to get a message out to my family: I ain’t happy with what’s going on, people.

What was it like in there?

Lorazepam. Aripriprazol. Zopiclone. Olanzapine. Lorazepam (again). Yep: an average day in the nuthouse. “You alright my love? Harry and Sally have gone now. You’ll have to chat with the apples and pears and Lisa. Lisa’s wearing pink gloves. That’s her.” That’s Katie: she talks in a strange way that mixed an old cockney and pop culture: a bit like Lily Allen mixed with Rodney from Only Fools and Horses.

First things first: the walks. I had my special walks that I’d take each day just to break up the time. Walk number one: perhaps at about 8am, or approximately 10am after the ‘morning meeting’ (more on that later). I’d get dressed, have my ‘meds’ – I’d be sharply awoken each morning at 8:30am by a nurse banging on my door and announcing: ‘Cathy, come for your meds’. Then I’d head out after my bowl of cornflakes and my first shower of the day (yes, there were potentially many showers in a day, just to get through the day).

I’d put on my snuggly bright red Hades jumper of lambswool, which proudly said ‘Joy Division’ across the front. Of course I didn’t tell anyone that ‘Joy Division’ were actually a cult pop-rock band whose frontman committed suicide, but instead tried to pull it off as a jovial sartorial choice.

Then I’d head out, coincidentally down the street where my mother lived as a student, and pass all the well-heeled students on their way to lectures. Pretty sure I came off as a student myself, in my white sneakers, and long black coat, I stuck in my iPhone headphones and headed down the hill. Once I reached Coop, I’d buy three things: a newspaper (because friends worked there and I was keen to see what they were up to); a packet of chewing gum (Wrigley’s peppermint); and a Costa coffee – usually a medium white Americano. After paying for them with the credit card I acquired in the Gulf, and attempting to appear as normal as possible, I’d then head all the way back up the leafy suburban street.

The area of town I was interned in was really rather pretty. But, as I said, it was very student-focussed. The houses were terraced and Victorian. Tasteful. If you walked past a residence, you’d often see a stand-up or grand piano in the front room; maybe some nice artwork on the Farrow and Ball-painted walls.

I’d arrive back at the top of the hill at the hospital and make my way back to the ward, which had a little black cat on the door that let you in. No ordinary door: a heavy, metal, door that you had to ring a doorbell in order to exit or enter. As well as this, each time you wanted to leave you’d have to ‘sign yourself out’ or ‘get signed out’ by a member of staff. This entailed someone signing in a booklet, to say what you were wearing, and where you were going, and how long you’d be. You also had to say if you were getting any smoking materials from your locker, as most people at the hospital appeared to smoke (I’d managed to simply stop by this time).

Activities! Oh, what a way to be made to feel like a woman old beyond her years. Knitting. Watching the television, maybe Bargain Hunt. Listen to the radio. Radio helps. Radio offers a window to the outside world. Lunch: same each day. Medication. Medication. More. More. Creative writing was a good outlet, but I found that sometimes I was so distressed I’d be literally writhing on the floor, and unable to focus on the writing tasks we’d been set. There was also an expressive dance class that I enjoyed frequenting: think Peep Show crossed with a psytrance night and you might be just about onto what it was like.

People’s stories about how they’ve ended up in here are very interesting. One woman, young, with bright, big, blue eyes and an inquisitive face (she asked me about myself – why I was there / what was wrong with me) said that she’d taken an overdose when her son was just 12 weeks old. She didn’t have post-natal depression, but things had fallen apart for her when her partner wouldn’t support her and her son meaning she subsequently lost her home and her job working in human recourses. Another had attempted to kill herself by slicing her own arm. She was constantly in pain and asking for painkillers from the nurses.

One woman had schizophrenia and always walked around talking to herself, saying “she said this, she said that, they told me this, they told me that” etc etc. She had bright pink hair, and tattoos all over her body, including one that read ‘cunt’ right across her back. One day, she disappeared, only to return to the ward a few days afterward.

There were also patients who seemed quite normal. One, who kept getting mistaken for a nurse (this happened to me regularly, too), said she’d been sectioned now over a series of 23 years. She would get better, and then she’d somehow be forced back to the wards. Another had a hard, pinched face, and she’d stalk the corridors with her headphones in, constantly listening to music. She loved music so much ran her own radio show, I found out. She’d also dropped out of a philosophy degree, never graduating.

Then, there were the pure nutty ones. The ones who you couldn’t have a conversation with, the ones who were so angry they screamed and shouted non-stop, the ones who talked about God a lot (many of them talked about God). Another woman kept herself wrapped in a blanket the entire time, which she used to cover her head, and only dashed out of her room occasionally to go to the toilet. She never showered. Rather darkly, on regular occasions, a whole group of nurses would gather outside her bedroom, with blue gloves on their hands, and I knew what they were doing. They were going to forcibly inject her with her medication as she refused to take it.

A lot of people wonder what it’s like in a psych ward. Let me tell you this: there isn’t that much to do and the day has to be meticulously spread out and broken up, I guess a bit like if you’re in prison.

The chaplain

How to explain the raw, deathly, painful, jagged punch of grief that cuts through you like a knife? How to capture that feeling of genuinely wanting to die at what’s been lost, and the sweat-inducing, writhing feelings of regret, of pain, of suffering that shoot through you like a knife cuts through butter. Like molten lava is being poured down your spinal chord. I’m sure others on the planet will have felt the same levels of pain and suffering and loss, but when you’re experiencing it, it’s as if you’re the only one to ever suffer as much. You can’t comprehend how someone else could ever have felt as bad and sad as you do at that exact moment.

At my lowest points, I reached out to the Psalms for comfort. Out of everything, Psalm 27, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, he lays me down in fields of green’ – that’s the only thing that could console me and make me feel whole again. Other psalms – which all seem to deal with loss and the hope given by Jesus Christ, also consoled me.

Alongside reading these in the Bible, I also had weekly meetings with the hospital chaplain, who comforted me in my loss, and explained to me that she couldn’t understand how bad I was feeling, and how it must be to lose so much at the age of just 30, but she said that, like Job, I’d get everything back – but more than I could have dreamed.

The chaplain was a kindly, loving, and matriarchal figure, who offered me great comfort each time we met. She had a snappy dress sense, often wearing rich reds and purples, which were interlaced with a great hairstyle and a thoughtful way of speaking. Whenever she saw me, she lifted up my spirits.

Job, of course, went through it. Man, he went through it – but he also came back from it. For him, just when he thought it couldn’t get worse, it got a bit worse. However, all Job said was – the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. In other words, why accept it when the Lord gives gifts, but why then abandon the Lord when he takes away those good gifts?

Psych ward, Gulf style

This wasn’t my first rodeo, however. I’d actually experienced not only a mental health hospital in London (for a two-night stay at my own volition), but also a hospital in the Persian Gulf that I’d admitted myself to voluntarily, where a group of young women were being kept. I was there for five nights all in all. It all happens so quickly. Before you know where you are, you’re being stripped and electrodes are being placed on your breasts and legs. One strikingly intelligent young woman really caught my attention. Among some other really profound things, she told me: “This is my holiday camp!”

A particular feature of life on the psych ward in the Gulf was smoking. But this time – I was involved. Yep – I enjoyed the smoking. I relished the smoking. I’d sit in the smoking room with a rather obese woman whose son was a famous singer, but who had sadly been killed in a car crash, and it had sent her somewhat crazy. She’d spark up, wearing her hijab, and thick-rimmed spectacles, and l’d join her. Alongside her in the ward was my roommate, who was fat and always asking for more food. Alongside asking for more food, she’d request I give her massages, which I always politely refused to give her.

I moved to the Gulf for a job as a journalist. However, things didn’t quite go as they should have. It had only been about two or three weeks when events started to take a sour turn. I’d moved into a five-star hotel, which, on all accounts, was nice. I was earning a lot of cash which was equally nice, and spending it on room service each evening – whether salmon pasta; or pizza; or a veggie mezze platter. I was making friends, too.

One of my main friends was Alice, a slightly older woman in her early thirties. I knew her from my previous job in London. She had once worked with refugees in Africa, and now was changing her trajectory bunkered down making lots of money in the Gulf. It was a truth well accepted that this oil-rich state as a place was boring, but what it offered was high salaries, so people went all the same. In the summer months, for about 4 or 5 months of the year, you can’t even step outside it’s so hot – reaching approximately 50 degrees.

Other groups of good friends were a foppish culture journalist, a cool girl from Lebanon and Beirut who’d honed her edge living in Paris; and an Indian guy who’d lived there for most of his life with his parents. These were my crew, and I loved them for who they were. However, things didn’t last that long.

To begin with, I spent my evenings lying by the pool in the five star hotel. But something went awry, and at work I ended up going outside for smoking breaks – lots and lots of smoking breaks. Then, of course, Alice got involved and made me go and see a psychiatrist, who promptly said I needed to go to a psych ward.

And boom: there you have it. As I said, all of a sudden things become inverted. You move from up to down, left to right, forward to backward, colour to discolour, torsion to distortion. I’d entered the nether world of the psych ward.

At that point I was still totally obsessed with my failed engagement, and that was constantly at the front of my mind. I remember one man in the assessment centre saying: ‘You know, life continues’. However, I couldn’t understand how to continue it, if that makes any sense at all. So, I was ushered into the nether regions of well-off Arab society. The part that us ex-pats weren’t supposed to see.


After release, I focussed on gardening with my dad, which taught me things like how to deadhead roses, how to prune, and what mulching means. I was completely ignorant of all these things before that, so it was a great experience to have the chance to learn more about these skills. Further, it was interesting to see what my father does for a living, and to follow in his footsteps for a while. On one occasion, I found a beautiful bird’s nest filled with gem-like bright blue eggs. Other duties included edging lawns, and scaling many ladders to remove deadheads from roses. It was mid-summer, so the Cotswolds landscape was lush and green.

Interestingly, this period also coincided with the first coronavirus lockdown. I lived with my grandfather in a retirement village, watched the daily coronavirus updates on the television, and drank copious amounts of sweet sherry. I also had to have weekly catch ups with the mental health teams, which, if I’m being honest, did help to break up the monotony, but also were very frustrating. I didn’t see any benefit from them, and found the whole process constrictive.

Since then, I’ve re-entered journalism, and am now working full-time and living in London. Despite not having exactly the job I’d like, it’s definitely good to be working again and to have that focus back. I’m renting an apartment in North London with two other young women, and we have a black and white cat for company. We also have a small garden, which we share regards tending duties, although, I have to say, I probably contribute the least to this! I suppose this is a little beacon of hope. What I’m trying to say is, getting sectioned isn’t the end of the road. There is light afterwards, and you can get things back on track again.

My life doesn’t compare to the halcyon days of my twenties, to the trips I used to take across the States with my now ex-fiancé, to tending the tomatoes in our shared garden to our lovely little flat, or to the hope that I used to hold for the future. I do feel like those youthful hopes and dreams are now, sadly, a thing of the past. But, I still hold out hope to move abroad again, but this time for a longer extended period of time, and to build a happy and productive life once again.

The only way to combat this whole situation is to do the things you love in life. Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep drawing. Keep seeing friends and enjoying. Life is a beautiful gift that needs to be celebrated. Things might have failed to work out how I’d have liked them to work out, for one reason or another, that even I’m not completely sure of. The cigarettes still make an appearance, but, there are times when it’s less now. Learning to love oneself and one’s life is key, and to be grateful for the small things.