On Thursday, 13 January 2011, I was interviewed live (over the ’phone) by Emma Britton of BBC Somerset. The interview went out shortly after 11 am, and it concerned my book, Delivered Unto Lions, and the experiences that inspired it: those of having been a child psychiatric patient in the former Merrifield Children’s Unit at Tone Vale Hospital, near Taunton, in the 1970s. For copyright reasons, I cannot offer a full transcript of the interview, but I reproduce here a transcript of my own words as broadcast.
Emma Britton began by asking me how I became a patient at Merrifield.
‘I was 12 years old and I was suffering with depression. It was causing problems at school, and things like that. I went through the old Child Guidance system, as it was in those days, and it was suggested that I be admitted for a short time to Merrifield. But a ‘short time’ stretched out into a much longer time, and I was there, on and off, for just over four years.’
Emma then asked what I had thought at the time about being admitted to the unit.
‘I think, prior to it actually happening, I felt quite positive about it. I thought that it would be a good thing, that it would sort out the problems I had. And a rather rosy picture of the unit had been painted for me by the psychiatrist. So I was actually quite positive – until I actually arrived there.’
I was then asked to describe what it was like.
‘It was all very traumatic. I suddenly found myself in this place surrounded by other kids with all sorts of other problems. There were kids, similar to myself, with depression, but there were also kids with anorexia. I’d never come across anything like that before, so that was quite a shock. And there were also kids who had been in trouble with the police, and perhaps had some violent tendencies. I was quite frightened of those, er, older kids, particularly. We were really such a mixed bunch of people. And although a lot of the staff were very good, very caring, a few of them weren’t really very sympathetic at all. It very much felt like a punitive environment, as though I was being punished for being unwell.’
Then Emma asked why a child of 12 would have been suffering with depression in the first place.
‘Well, I guess we’d had a few problems in the family. My father had been quite unwell, we’d also moved house quite recently, and I had a new baby sister. Things were very much changing at home, and I’d only been in my new school for about a year or so, and I hadn’t really adjusted too well to our new circumstances – and I think that’s what really led to my depression.’
Emma enquired about my medical treatment.
‘It was mostly drugs – antidepressants, initially. But then there were drugs like benzodiazepines, and even antipsychotics at one point. Quite a lot of drugs. And the prescription would be changed without any prior warning, so I never knew what was happening. Although my memory of the whole period is pretty good, there’s a whole section in the middle that I really don’t remember at all, and I put that down to the effect of drugs.’
The depiction of mental hospitals in films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was raised, and I was asked if Merrifield was anything like that.
‘Cosmetically, it was different. The actual building itself and the furnishings were a lot more pleasant than what you see portrayed in films like that, and, indeed, what you see in documentaries on the old asylums. So, as I say, cosmetically it was rather better. But I think in practice there was still a lot of the same sort of attitudes: the same sort of institutional culture prevailed.’
Emma then asked why I wanted to revisit my experiences in writing Delivered Unto Lions. Was it difficult? she asked.
‘Yes, it was. It was extremely difficult, actually. I’d had it vaguely in mind for a number of years that I might try and do something positive with my experience. But then, a few years ago, I came across this ‘urban exploration’ website. Now, I don’t really know too much about ‘urban exploration’ myself, but they had a feature on the old Tone Vale Hospital, and there was a sort of forum there, and a number of former Merrifield patients had posted things on there. I suddenly realised this was a very important cause, it wasn’t just about me, it was about my generation, and also about people who preceded me and followed me at Merrifield. I very much felt we all had a story to get out, that this was very much a hidden world. People in the Taunton area and West Somerset will have all heard of Tone Vale, but very few people will have heard of Merrifield – they won’t have known that children were treated in this sort of way. So I wanted to get the story out.’
The question then came up of my book being described as a novel.
‘It falls between two stalls really, because it’s not, strictly speaking, biography – although there’s a lot of biography in it – and it’s not, strictly speaking, fiction. What I’ve done, to protect the identities of other people, is to change names and alter some of the situations a bit, and relocate the whole thing to another location, in Sussex. So, I’ve done that, so in that sense it’s like a work of fiction, but it very closely follows my own experiences and also the things I witnessed. So a lot of it can be taken quite literally, but there is some sort of artistic invention in there as well, particularly to cover gaps in my memory.’
Emma then asked if I was pleased to hear that Merrifield and Tone Vale had been closed and a new village built in their place. She also asked how I felt about the shift in the approach towards people with mental health problems.
‘On the whole, I’m quite pleased about that. I know there’s been a lot of criticism of Care in the Community, and there’s been a number of high-profile cases where it hasn’t worked, with tragic results. But on the whole, I think it’s been a very positive move, especially for children. And, of course, I was very pleased to hear that the hospital and the children’s unit had been closed down. But I do have some reservations as well, because now, at Cotford St Luke [the new village built on the site], there’s no real sign that Merrifield Unit existed at all – you wouldn’t know it had ever been there. Although that’s good in one sense – that something new and positive has been built on the site – on the other hand, it’s a bit like having your memories buried. I very much think we should learn from history to make sure these things don’t happen again, so it’s almost as if the evidence has been removed. But, generally, I think it’s a very positive thing. In a way, that piece of land, as it were, has been kind of 'redeemed' or 'saved' by having housing built on it. That’s great, really.
The issue of catharsis was then broached: had writing the book laid any demons to rest?
‘To a certain extent, but rather than the actual act of writing the book – which, as I said, was extremely difficult – what I have found very helpful for me is some of the reaction I’ve had to it. I’ve heard from some other former patients of Merrifield, and other people who are interested, and just hearing that reaction, hearing that perhaps in a small way I may have helped one or two people, that has really helped me. That’s made quite a big difference to me, and it’s put the whole experience into a new perspective.
Finally, Emma asked about my current state of health.
‘Well, I have my ups and downs. I’m pretty good, on the whole. Not perfect, but not bad.’
Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press
For more information visit www.davidaustin.eu