Read by Kim Scopes
It has to be said that, even before I got caught fucking a fellow patient in a laundry cupboard, I hadn’t made myself popular during my stay on the country’s only OCD ward.
In my defence, I never wanted to go in the first place. I mean, I don’t think it’s high up the list for anyone in terms of a holiday destination but everyone else seemed to at least accept they needed to be there. They were sick. And scared. And tired. And they wanted it to stop.
I could tick all those boxes myself, except the big one. I wasn’t sick. I was ugly.
“Bullshit”, I said, not being at all enamoured of the cut of his jib. “How does that work then? Because if there’s SOMETHING ON YOUR FUCKING FACE then at what point are you just inventing a mental illness to use as an excuse for being ugly?”
“All my BDD patients say something very similar” he said triumphantly, disappearing to advise my mother that her mutant daughter was also a lunatic. And within the week I was packed off down south. Which may have come as something of a relief given the special-episode-of-Byker-Grove level discussions my parents kept trying to initiate. Or at least it did until it became clear they weren’t fucking about.
By the end of the first week I was in the shit for refusing to take the scarf off my face. Only backed down on that one when it became apparent they were quite happy to actually take it away. Second week I was unveiled as the centre of a loose conspiracy to work Peep Show quotes into every group therapy session. Got called upstairs to receive a stern talking-to about “undermining my therapy.” Which is how I came to be walking around outside when they were showing Stevie around.
My first words to him were “Stop fucking staring, you creepy little shit.” So that was hardly an auspicious start either.
Then there was the Dettol incident.
So they had these therapy groups that were supposed to teach you compassion for yourself and strategies for managing anxiety, right? Needless to say, we all fucking hated them and wished with unending fervour that the fucking room would catch fire, but the lad who did them was so enthusiastic I started feeling bad about fucking them up and just decided I’d sit there and say nothing. So anyway, it was like the second group after Stevie got there, and they were apparently going to teach us how to make a “relaxing space” in our heads, right? So this time they asked us to bring a comforting smell. Given there were at least two nailed on knicker thieves among us at the time, I thought this was rather dicey. But I was being a good patient, so I didn’t say anything. I found a little bottle of this perfume my older sister used to wear, when I used to sneak into her room and inhale the secrets and think it was fucking Narnia, which actually did make me want to cry a bit when I found it. This girl, Lucia, who had to be pulled out of her shower by the police to bring her in and who was my co-defendant in the Peep Show quote affair, had come with a packet of Juicy Fruit, which I thought was quite sweet. So she’s sat opposite me and we’ve decided we’re not going to be a pair of little bitches for once. Then Stevie rocks up late, right?
He’s got this way of walking, my boy, this weird little lope to the right that I find almost heartbreakingly adorable. And it was the first time I noticed, which just tells you what a self absorbed little mess I am, but there was no skin on his hands. Well. I mean, they were chapped. Absolutely raw, to the point where the skin wasn’t just flaked, it was broken. And bleeding. And it went right up to his wrists then stopped just past the bone, like some horrible kind of insanity mittens. Like - oh, bloody hell - like the scar on my face. And all the while he’s getting a talking to for being late I’m looking and I’m thinking: I’m not. I’m NOT. I can’t be. I’d have noticed, if I was that sick, if I’d - oh. Oh my fuck.
So anyway he’s apologising and I’m in the throes of a total personality melt and the therapist says “Well, that’s alright Steven. Did you remember a comforting smell?”
And Stevie’s sat down next to Lucia and he’s looking all smug and he pulls out a bottle of Dettol. Me and Lucia clocked it at the same time and she’s biting her lip and a few other people are shifting in their chairs. Stevie’s noticed this, and he’s baffled.
“What?” he goes “That’s what you asked for.”
“Steven,” the therapy dickhead goes “the idea isn’t to…” and he’s giving it all this about maintaining safety behaviours and Lucia can’t keep her face straight and I’m going to hell anyway so I just put my hand up and went,
“Can I just..can I ask, Stevie? Given that you’re on a bang up with the most OCD people in the country, and that the whole point of this is to teach you to chill the fuck out, did you not think at any point...did you not get that MASSIVE BOTTLE OF DISINFECTANT and think ‘hmm...maybe they meant something like fried doughnut smell?’
About half the group are out and out pissing themselves now and while on any other day this would have been an absolute result, I’m looking at his face and it’s like I’ve skinned him alive and before anyone can recover enough to answer he’s bolted. The therapy dickhead can’t decide if it’s better to go after him or deal with me and while he’s trying to reassert himself it occurs to me.
That the lad was being honest, and that what he was being honest about was just sad.
That it wasn’t fucking funny at all.
That I might be able to actually learn something from that approach
That my Phantom of the fucking Opera face might be the least of my worries.
The session didn’t much improve from there. I was amazed they’d let me stay so I thought I’d better fucking keep it shut from that point and just spent the rest of it weathering some fucking evil looks and wishing I would spontaneously combust.
He found me first, hanging out of the laundry window (faced the back of the building so ideal for furtive smoking). I snapped to attention and dropped the ciggie as soon as I heard the door, naturally, a move honed and polished by a girl’s school education. Of course, I didn’t have the time to cover my face again, so he’d caught me both literally hideous and being the biggest bitch in the entire world, praying for both spontaneous combustion and some handily distracting nudity (I’ve got good tits, they cover a multitude of sins)
He didn’t run back out when he saw it was me, which I’d kind of been banking on. I had these two speeches half prepared, one where I begged forgiveness and another one where I tried to style it out as a joke that came out wrong, and he was looking me straight in the eye.
And I cried. I just fucking cried. I was halfway to showing some actual backbone and apologising like a decent human being but he looked at me and it just tore me in half, and there we were in a mental hospital laundry room, with his scabby hands on my scabby face, and he’s telling me it’s okay and I’m just saying, it’s not, it’s not, oh my fucking God, I’m such a dickhead, I’ve fucked everything up and you’re so much better at this than me and it’s really not okay at all.
He told me he hadn’t been staring at my scars, the first day, he was looking at my face and wondering how someone so pretty could possibly be so unhappy they’d need to be here.
I told him I didn’t understand how everyone here couldn’t see I wasn’t like them. I didn’t need help, I needed erasing. Just taking off the face of the earth before anyone else had to look at me.
He told me before he came he hadn’t left his house for four weeks because every time he went outside, he couldn’t understand how everyone else found it so easy to just get on with their lives and be normal while he was stuck boiling his hands fifty odd times a day.
I’m not sure how long we were in there before someone noticed we were missing and sent out the search dogs. Let’s just say our discovery was not met with rapture. Some lad spent the entire next group session kicking off about how was he meant to feel like his clothes were clean now.
That was my third strike so they shipped me back home a few days later. My mother was mortified, although I think she was also slightly impressed that I managed to get off with the nicest boy in the whole hospital (I knew this to be the case, because I sent Lucia on a recce of all the other units. No contest, straight from the horse’s mouth.) Stevie’s still there, doing a lot better, so he tells me. He’s going home next month, all other things being equal.
I’m still stuck in the house doing mirror work, which is therapist speak for staring at your face until it loses all meaning and then finding a nice couple of pores or something to enthuse about. I’m beginning to suspect it might be an idea to just keep my mouth shut and go with it.
I’m beginning to suspect I’ll survive. I mean, if you can get laid in a mental hospital you’re probably game enough to take a bit of self loathing on the chin.
Still can’t cope with the smell of Dettol, though ...
(c) Emma O'Brien, 2016
Emma O’Brien is an exiled Scouser working in mental health in the North East, studying for MA Creative Writing at Newcastle Uni in the evenings, finding ever more clever uses for creative swearing and trying to get her cat out of her tights drawer.
Kim Scopes is an experienced actress and puppeteer who trained at East 15. She recently performed in A Christmas Carol alongside Jim Broadbent in the West End. Other credits include Boris and Sergey, The Twice Shy Peep Show, ITV's NEWZOIDS & CBBC's Strange Hill High. She is also Resident Artist with Finger on the Pie Theatre Company, has toured both in the UK and internationally, taught puppetry in Peru and performed at Glastonbury. www.kimscopes.co.uk