When I Ended Up In A Psychiatric Ward, Music Felt Like My Only Escape

Photographed by Kristine Romano
The following comes from Terri White's upcoming memoir Coming Undone. While Terri is known for her illustrious career as the award-winning Editor-in-Chief of magazines like TimeOut New York, Shortlist and Empire, behind closed doors she was dealing with a mental health crisis that would land her in a psychiatric ward as her past caught up with her. The memoir follows her from difficult childhood growing up with abuse from her mother's partners to building her career in New York, where everything finally comes apart at the seams. This extract charts part of her experience in the ward.
"The only group I go to willingly, speed in my step, is music group. Because as well as control over the television, and being able to watch films at the drop of a hat (though it is a stroke of luck that everyone else in the ward, male and female, seems only to want to watch Law and Order: SVU and Criminal Minds during TV time – they truly are the great unifiers), I desperately miss music. No phone and no computer means no music.
My ears are starved, my heart and mind quiet. When I arrive at the class, there is a woman, the group leader, holding a black boom box, which must have been from the 90s. She has a slipcase book full of loose CDs and a stack in plastic cases, many cracked, the clear plastic now lined and milky. She’s passing them around the group, who are regarding them with a mixture of excitement and suspicion. The task at hand: to pick a CD, a song on it, that means something and play it. We’re going around in a circle – they choose songs that remind them of school, of kids they’ve lost, of kids they’re barely holding on to, of love they once had. As the songs play, each person leaves the green room, the circle, their place in it, and floats up, up and away, outside, up into the sky where they find their old memories, old lives waiting for them with open arms. With forgiveness. For a moment they’re not mad people sitting on plastic chairs in a circle with other mad people. They’re real, warm flesh-and-blood men and women with lives, with people who love them, who have once, many times, looked at them with recognition, with respect. Who don’t tell them when to eat, how to medicate themselves, don’t ask them to pare themselves open like a rotten fruit in front of strangers. They are safe, a different kind of safe. They are normal. Just like everyone else. It’s the most glorious three-and-a-half-minute escape from behind the wire and walls. And one that ends almost as it begins. The dying seconds of the song, the fadeouts that they know so well getting quieter and quieter until it’s over, the spell broken. Now, once again, they’re just a mad person sitting on a plastic chair in a circle with other mad people. They pass to the next person, and their minutes of magic begin now.

For a moment they’re not mad people sitting on plastic chairs in a circle with other mad people. They’re real, warm flesh-and-blood men and women with lives, with people who love them, who have once, many times, looked at them with recognition, with respect.

When it reaches me, the magic has run dry: I can’t cope with everyone regarding me, still the new girl, with such suspicion. I’ve been fingering the thick black CD booklet, pulling out silver and gold discs and slipping them back inside again. The 90s R&B and Noughties country music is doing nothing to aid my escape. In my head, there’s no escape, just a straight path home.
The Jam, taking me home to screaming and broken bones, the warm afternoon I came home from school to be met by Mum on her hands and knees under the ironing board, picking up hundreds and hundreds of shards of black vinyl, now sharp as glass, wincing every time a sliver slid into her skin, drawing a red line as it went, marking its path. She’d been playing a Jam record and her boyfriend had come home from work, thought it reminded her of an unnamed ex and smashed it to pieces and pieces and pieces while she held the spitting iron between them.
To full dancefloors above a village pub of drinkers, bouncing and vibrating to ‘A Town Called Malice’, swimming in lager and blackcurrant, littered with white crusts, Mum’s sticky perm lit right through with disco lights flashing green, blue, red, orange to the beat of the music. The dartboard rocked under the arrows it received and the bass of the disco, coming a few centimetres off the wall with each chorus. The men, all with no hair, round bellies, shiny shoes, shirts done up to the very top. Necks red-raw and slick with sweat beneath the collars that pinched at them no matter how they pulled, becoming damper and tighter as the hours passed and the drinks sank inside and the slick swam thicker and wetter. The next morning the shirt would lie discarded by the radiator, fingerprints taken in the muck, sweat, yeast that lined it, now flaking off onto the carpet.
To a bedroom, the end of a narrow double bed in London, white sheets with creases still visible and itchy red wool blankets tucked in tight, ‘Start’ playing as we kissed with open mouths and sighed with closed throats, fingers hooked into hair, clinging on for life and pointing towards oblivion, and the room blurring to distortion around us until everything was noise and fuzz and a blanket of beige, until we’re submerged entirely. ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ bouncing off the Artexed ceiling of the house, through each doorway and up the stairs, through the net curtains and out of the open windows into the blue sky outside, laying the path that disagreement will ride in on, joined by raised voices and accusations and the creak of barely held tension, breaking like a wave to rush in with screaming and fistfuls of blood, spilling as it comes.
When I look at ‘No Diggity’ I’m taken nowhere. I’m here, a mad person on a plastic chair in a circle with the other mad people. I envy the escape, the journey of the others. Even those who silently cry, staring at the ceiling or the floor as they do. No one makes a move to comfort them, to hold them. Everyone’s stuck in their own stasis. We may as well be in individual plastic pods, experiencing this in total isolation.
The activities room the group is held in is by the main doors – the doors that are always locked, that allow in the outside world during visiting hours (how it burns to see people come and go freely), but other than that they’re activated by a pass or via the intercom on the door. After each visiting session, they lock the doors and the outside world is once again banished.
Coming Undone by Terri White is published by Canongate Books and is out 2nd July.

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