An "adolescent eating disorder unit" doesn't sound that bad, really. It sounds, to the layman, like a place for young people who have food issues. If I asked you to imagine what one might look like, perhaps you'd think about something vaguely like a school, or a youth hostel. Probably not exactly glamorous - this is the NHS after all - but something teenagery and ok.
In reality, the unit IS ok. It's in an old building that's been divided up into oddly tiny-but-tall rooms. The lounge has sofas and computers, a tv and a fish tank. There's standard-issue teenage mess, stuff that's not been picked up, half-done puzzles, tatty motivational posters on the walls. The bedrooms are sparsely furnished but ok. Like a budget hotel; it's enough.
None of that conveys what the atmosphere can be like. This is, after all, a psychiatric unit. The patients are all young, but suffering from very serious mental illnesses. They may be children, but this is no youth hostel. There's none of the vitality of a school. This is a place where horrors are faced, stared down, sometimes succumbed to.
Tonight I went to visit Ollie, for the standard 7.30 - 8.30pm weekday visiting slot. I was quietly optimistic, looking forward to giving my baby a cuddle, sitting with him for a while. As I rounded the building and approached the door, I realised that things were not right.
The unit is accessed via a set of locked doors, forming an "air lock", which are controlled via a video intercom. Usually, you ring the bell and someone answers straight away. Tonight, I heard the screaming before I had got as far as the door. I heard lots of voices, and a relentless, repetitive, desperate howling. It didn't sound like Ollie. It wasn't Ollie. But someone was terrified. Unsurprisingly, it took a long time for the door to be answered. As I entered the locked foyer, I was hit by a wall of concerned staff, trying to contain a situation. I'd never seen so many staff in one place. Luckily, one of the nurses recognised me and fetched Ollie.
We were ushered upstairs, away from the ward, to the family room. We were asked to shut the door. The sense of fear and tension was palpable throughout the building. Ollie looked ashen, his eyes panicked. The screaming went on, and I tried to make conversation. But I couldn't pretend that it was ok. None of it was ok. His bedroom may be cosy and the sofas in the family room comfy, but this was not home. This was nothing like home.
I think I had convinced myself that things would be ok, now that Ollie's in a unit. The progress of the last few weeks seemed to confirm this. He was being looked after, and he'd soon settle in and start talking, and then he'd make friends, and eventually it'd be like a school residential trip. Then Ollie will be supported by the girls and begin to eat.
I hadn't thought about what it would be like for Ollie to listen to someone else screaming. I hadn't thought about how frightening that would be. I hadn't thought about the other patients, at all.
As I was leaving, I handed Ollie a box of DVDs. The Harry Potter back catalogue, a couple of Indiana Joneses. The box and contents had to be checked. The DVDs passed, the box did not. I was told that the metal edges of the IKEA file box were too dangerous, not for Ollie (as he remains on 1:1 nursing), but for some of the other patients. I hadn't considered the potential for self-harm. It hadn't occurred to me to worry about other children.
I left my boy there tonight. I kissed him and left him standing in a psychiatric ward that echoed with screams. I left Ollie surrounded by fear.