Kate was a tortured soul. Every scar on her body reflected a story of pain and torment from a world that had repeatedly been cruel since she was a small child. She was young, just 18 but already the world and society had left an indelible mark upon her.
I was blessed with the chance to meet Kate in the Autumn of 2000. I had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital acute ward at a time where I was not coping with the world around me or the life that I had been given. It was a time where I had lost all beauty in life.
After my first few days of assessment and acclimatising I was introduced to my first group therapy session. I say group, but in reality it was just Kate and myself because the other 2 people were the therapist and Kate’s one-to-one nurse. For the first few minutes there were just awkward shrugs and silences. But slowly I started to talk, Kate started to nod in agreement and occasionally vocally acknowledge what I was saying. I didn’t really know it then, but this I discovered was a breakthrough for her.
As I mentioned Kate had been severely damaged by life, she was covered head-to-toe in scars, her body was like a patchwork quilt. To anyone it was shocking to see such pain outwardly painted on the canvass of such a young soul. I remember being taken aback by the visual impact of her pain. I wasn’t afraid, I was saddened, but not afraid. What really saddened me was watching the reaction of the other patients and some of the staff. They would look awkwardly and disgustedly towards her; they would give her a wide berth in the corridor. The ways some of them looked and treated Kate, you would have thought they were afraid of catching her pain and trauma.
When that first group concluded and we headed back to the ward, we continued chatting. I invited Kate to join me for a cigarette in the enclosed garden of the ward. This invitation created at first a look of shock, then a look of puzzlement and finally a look of happiness. Kate’s face suddenly beamed one of the most beautiful smiles I have seen in all my life.
That first cigarette led to another one, then a coffee and another cigarette. Before we knew it, it was lunch time. Kate never ate in the restaurant, I would later discover why, but that’s not important now. We didn’t see each other for the rest of the day and that was ok. We did meet for a smoke break the next day and started chatting. In the afternoon I had a different group but when I returned to the ward, she was waiting for me in the TV lounge, we spent the afternoon drinking coffee and smoking and chatting. That evening Kate ventured into the TV lounge after dinner as we struck up another conversation. This time something unusual happened, another patient asked Kate something, nervously she replied. Suddenly that patient understood she was no different to Kate; meanwhile Kate realised she wasn’t an alien to the other patients.
Slowly the days passed, our friendship blossomed and the other patients seemed less afraid to approach Kate and talk to her. I also observed a noticeable shift in the way the staff were with Kate. Kate too was changing, although it was rare for her to initiate conversation with anyone except me, she was starting to interact with the others. Another major breakthrough was she held her hand out to me. I’m sure it shocked the others but I wasn’t afraid to hold her hand and did so as gently as I could. Gentle enough not to hurt her or press on her scars, but firm enough to let her know she was safe and cared for. We would walk around the ward hand in hand, like young children do.
I soon discovered that Kate was somehow obtaining alcohol and drinking in her room. One night she snuck out from her room whilst the nurse conducting her one-to-one observations had dosed off in her chair outside her bedroom. Unbeknownst to me, she crept into my room and slipped into my bed. I woke with a startle, scared for my own reasons, and scared what Kate wanted. What she asked me for to this day still amazes me. Now I know what you must all be thinking, what Kate wanted wasn’t anything sexual, it was nothing more than a platonic hug and to feel safe. When I managed to calm her down I told her we should get her back to her room. She protested, but I insisted (after all I didn’t want to be caught with a patient in my room, no matter how innocent the situation or I was.) We reached a compromise, I would sit outside her room until she had fallen asleep.
The next three or four weeks we got closer, the bond between us became more like brother and sister. We both learned a valuable lesson in unconditional love, friendship and trust. I was thrilled to see her making friends; a feat that was inconceivable when we first met. I gained so much in our time, love, humility, beauty. All at a time when I only felt, cold, pain and hatred; whereas I may not have healed and recovered I did discover a place in my heart with some light and warmth in it.
I was devastated and delighted in equal measure when Kate’s time was up. From a selfish perspective I was losing a close confident, almost twin-like soul. But I was pleased for her, she was moving onto the next step of her journey, getting a chance to put her past behind her and move forward, to challenge and purge the bad that had destroyed a beautiful flower, instead letting the light and warmth life owed her, alongside the chance to grow and bloom.
We lost touch shortly after she arrived at her new unit, I wrote to her and sent her some flowers to wish her luck, but we lost touch. Although that saddens me, it saddens me to not know if she managed to get her chance at life she had been so cruelly denied in the past. I will never know if she made it or not. There are time I wonder how she is doing, or if the worst happened; however I will always remember the short time we spent together and I was able to such happiness and beauty even if only for a matter of weeks.
I often wonder what I have learned from that brief interlude. Firstly I know more than I ever did, no matter what the person looks like, there is a person behind the mask or scars and behind that person lies a story. Secondly I believe in those few weeks I was touched by an angel, the light she bought at a time I was otherwise shrouded by darkness is a miracle. Finally I have always tried to use this experience to guide me with others in hospitals. I have been blessed by some good friendships and more surprisingly the love and partnership of a wonderful woman whom I will always cherish as I did Kate.
So Kate, whether you made it or not, thank you for what you gave to me all those years ago. Wherever you may be, I wish you love, peace, happiness and security, tonight and always.