October and November, 2001
The first Sunday Bink was in the Unit, we told our church.
Of course we did.
Shaun had never accepted the adage he was taught at theological college and in his first curacy: ‘Never make friends within the parish.’ His congregation was our family, our friends. We shared everything. Our home, our life, and that included our sorrows.
(True, there came a time, as perhaps there comes a time for everything, when the vulnerability and openness we’d shown the church we loved so much ended up hurting us very deeply... but that is another story, for another time, and not really to do with Bink’s illness. And it doesn’t make it inappropriate, anyway.)
It would have been inconceivable for us not to have told everyone: the church was Bink's family too.
She was instantly inundated. Soon she had more cards than she could fit on her notice board or arrange on her desk: more flowers than in a star’s dressing-room.
How different from school.
Bink, like Serena, was on a full Government Assisted Place at St Paul’s Girls’ School. SPGS is sometimes in the press accused of putting its pupils under undue pressure, perhaps unhelpful to their mental health. Serena loved it there, made lifelong friendships, was inspired to achieve her potential in a way she found deeply satisfying. (Bink perhaps had a less congenial cohort. Which, like everything, helped shape her illness.)
The Monday morning she was due back, I rang the High Mistress.
“My advice,” she said, “is that we don’t announce where she is.”
“Oh?” I was taken aback. “I’m afraid we’ve already told our church.”
“That’s your business,” she went on. “But in my experience it’s not helpful. When she returns she will want to be in control of the information.”
When she returns! When Bink eventually crawled, crippled, from that place the High Mistress gave us very short shrift indeed.
She is long gone herself and we will never know how much her advice was genuinely charitable, but from Bink’s point of view it was disastrous. The school chaplain kindly visited her a few times, but she never heard anything from any of her schoolmates.
A very long time later, one of them explained. “Bink simply disappeared. We had no idea where she was. No one told us anything and we got the impression we weren’t to ask. How could we send her our well-wishes?”
Serena’s school friends danced at her wedding and now compare baby notes. Bink never saw hers again.
Be that as it may, she continued to be bombarded with love.
My faithful, wonderful father – bless him – wrote to her every single day, until the day she came out. He never missed a single post. My parents sent her flowers, a pot plant via Interflora: the suffocating heat of her unbearably stuffy room all but killing it off in days.
Serena brought her a little clematis in a pot. The present surprises me now (a few months ago someone tried to throw it out, and I rescued it): Serena, like me, abhors anything artificial. But it was deceptive, the buds looking very real and the pot looking like plastic. We joked that we’d succeeded in smuggling it in: ceramic, like the knives she also easily hid into her room, was forbidden.
And members of our dear, loving church kept up a constant stream of support. The payphone rang many times a day for Bink: other stranded, abandoned patients were fortunate if their defeated and disoriented families contacted them once a week.
Parson’s Green is half an hour from the Florence Nightingale Unit, and Bink was often visited and taken out for supper.
For several weeks.
Until the psychiatrist put her foot down. It would be interesting to do a comparative study between the techniques of that Unit and those of a cult. Brainwashing, I’ve been told, includes isolation as well as sleep deprivation.
All this attention was ‘distracting from therapy.’ Bink was to have no more visits. No more contact.
Even we, her parents – and siblings – were not to communicate with her any more.
(And if your thesis is that, 'The parents are usually the problem,' as I have variously heard from therapists, counsellors and psychiatrists, this makes a sick kind of sense.)
Not unless she specifically requested us were we ever allowed to see her.