Sunday, 14 October 2012

Betty's Story.

Why did the name of someone I knew thirty years ago suddenly pop into my mind? I have no idea,but when it did I wrote about her and when I  read on Rosalind's blog that Wednesday 10th October was World Mental Health Day I knew it was time to take my story from draft and post it.

Her name was * Betty and I worked with her when I was eighteen years and she was about twenty years my senior.
Betty was a lovely woman, so funny and full of life and she made each day at work fun.
She had a husband and three children two were teenagers and one of primary school age.
One day at work she was in floods of tears, when I asked what was wrong she could hardly answer me but passed me the newspaper. Elvis had died and she was devastated.
The phenomenon that was Elvis had passed me by, I was too young and was more interested in David Cassidy so I couldn't understand why she was so upset but even for an Elvis lover her heartbreak seemed extreme.
She had very big highs where she would laugh and have a carry on all day long and get us all into trouble, we were even banned from laughing once. Then, real deep lows as in the day she cried  for Elvis. I didn't recognise anything was wrong I suppose being so young I was naive I didn't know Betty was daily fighting the illness of depression.

One day she did not come to work. We didn't know why but there was a lot of whispers before we were told she had had a breakdown and was in hospital but it was surrounded in secrecy as depressive illnesses were over thirty years ago. I didn't really know what a breakdown was and didn't feel I could ask anyone.
A very similar building. (from morgue files)
 For six weeks we heard nothing about Betty, then someone met her sister and asked if we could visit her in hospital.
Two of the older women at work and myself went to visit her, it was quite a trek, two long bus journeys and a walk up a huge hill to the front of a large imposing building which was a psychiatric hospital.
I can still remember feeling very scared, I had heard that she had been given Electric Shock Therapy and I did not know what to expect. As we went inside and told the nurse who we had come to visit we were shown through two sets of double doors which were locked behind us. If it were possible for me to be more scared then, I was.

Betty saw us, she came shuffling up the ward, she was so pleased to see us. We had gifts for her, a nightdress, dressing gown, slippers and toiletries from all at work. The way she received them made me very uneasy, she was like a child at Christmas, she showed them to everyone on the ward and I thought my heart was going to break, if I could have ran out of there that minute I would have.
This was not the Betty who took me under her wing at work and showed me the ropes. This was not the woman who told me jokes and made me laugh.
This was not the Betty who was a loving mother and wife who had a responsible job and looked after everyone.
 This was a broken Betty.

 We played along with her childish chatter all  feeling  equally uneasy and sad .On the way back home the three of us were very quite, I think we all wondered what to say to the other girls at work the following day, none of us felt we could tell the truth it would have felt like betraying her. Instead we said she was doing well, loved the gifts and was looking forward to coming back to work, when in reality she had never mentioned it.
Betty did return to work a few months later, she came back part time but something was missing, it may have been that the medication subdued her but she just wasn't the same.
I kept in touch with her after I left work to go to another job and five years later when I had my son she came on two long bus journeys herself to visit and give me a gift for my new baby. By that time she seemed back to the way she had been before her hospital stay and I was so glad that she had got herself back again.
As can happen, life and another baby and a part time job got in the way and although we exchanged Christmas cards we didn't meet up again.
I did hear that she had bouts of depression from time to time. One year my Christmas card was returned from the post office as not at that address. This was before the time of Facebook and other social networks so I couldn't find out what happened to her, maybe it was as simple as her just moving house.
Looking back now as an older woman I think it was a bit more than depression that was wrong with Betty, what, I don't know because as I said it was shrouded in secrecy. I think today we are more aware of mental health issues although I never heard on the news that Wednesday had been World Mental Health Day, but as we learn more about it I hope no one will be scared the way I was about visiting anyone with such an illness after all it could happen to any one of us.
* Betty is not her real name.


  1. A very moving story, and very sensitively told. I am always up front about my constant battle to stay on the right side of sanity! Friends who know me well recognise when things are veering off course and will step in. So sad to think how lonely and isolated Betty must have felt. Yes, things have changed - and also, I think we (the other minded) have learned to live with and accept who we are. After all, so much art, music and writing was and is created by people who are edged slightly off the sanity scale.

  2. That's such a sad story. Thankfully they have, I think, stopped giving Electric Shock treatment. What a barbaric thing to do. I hope that it was as simple as her moving house. Maybe she's reading this now and will get in touch. I suppose that's unlikely but I hope she's well and happy somewhere.

  3. Thanks Carol,Yes its good that more people can be upfront about their illness it must make it easier to live with but sadly some still fear for their jobs.

  4. Yes it was sad,but we did meet a few times after I left work. I've not thought about her for a long time,the name just popped into my head. I've tried on facebook but she would be in her late seventies by now I think.Her surname is so common I would never find her.

  5. That poor woman. I lived with a bipolar, depressed, agoraphobic husband for years. He was on medication on which he became dependent. Counseling didn't seem to help. So he self medicated with alcohol and by the time I could no longer cope with my life with him, he was hearing voices and unable to follow the plot of TV shows we'd seen dozens of times. His liver was shot and he died in Sept. It's not easy to watch someone descend into that dark place. I've been there myself. I hope Betty found peace in her later years. Who knows maybe someday you will find her! She will be delighted I'm sure. Did you know what her children's names were? That might be a way to locate her if you are so inclined.

  6. Poor Betty :( I think public and medical perception of mental health was so off the mark back then. My old flatmate studied counselling last year and was shown video footage of mental institutions from the 60's where the patients were in there for things like unwed pregnancy and learning difficulties etc! I'm so glad there's a better view of it these days, as mental illness probably effects us all to some degree. I do hope Betty's OK and getting the correct help. I also send my condolences to JoJo who commented below; what a tragedy.

  7. JoJo ,I am so sorry for your recent loss. It must havew been very hard to see someone you loved spiral into those depths. Betty had a lovely family and I'm sure she was fine. Her children will be married with families now and they're surname was very common,I would hate to find out that she is no longer here.

  8. Thanks for your input Catherine.Yes lets hope it is a lot better today. Betty would be in her late seventies now and I do hope the rest of her life since I last saw her has been happy.

  9. Anne, a sad post but a great one to share. Mental illness is such a sad an awful thing. Working in a gp surgery I have become much more aware of how many people suffer with depression and many other types of mental health problems. They range from teenagers through to elderly and probably much younger. If you do think how people were treated years ago, it wouldn't of been very nice and many people with depression etc would have been put into what was then asylums. I can imagine it was a very scary place when you visited. There is the Cane Hill mental asylum in Coulsdon near where I live and although it is in large grounds and you can't see the actual building (which is now closed down) just the gates and enterance seem so opposing and intimidating. As Catherine says people who did not deserve to or belong in institutions were stuck in these places. When I was a student and worked in a learning disability home, there was one lady in her 60's who was in there from a young girl because she was epileptic, through years of institution she had developed other problems but today she would have led a normal life, also working on a mental health ward there was a lady there from her teenage years who fell pregnant when she was unwed and had been in institutions all her life. Heart breaking

  10. Oh a long comment but I forgot to say poor Betty, I hope you found some happiness in her life

  11. Yes it was awful then Kate. I magine being put away for all those years for being pregnant. We too have an institution like that not so far from here and when it closed down all the stories came out about people who had been there for thirty and forty years and nothing wrong with them.

  12. How very sad...I can identify with this story as I have also visited a work friend in hospital. I was sixteen at the time, things were different, and I was shocked when I saw the place for the first time.

    I wanted to break her out, however, with hindsight now, I understand why people have to be kept safe, and locked up. I still don't like the idea though...

    My friend has suffered on and off with mental illness for the last thirty five years. Things have improved in the hospitals, but I'm not sure peoples attitudes have...

  13. What a sad story. Betty sounds like a wonderful woman - I wonder if she would have any better treatment today. I'd like to hope so.

  14. That's what I was like Maria I was eighteen and had never been near a hospital like that before. I think some people are still scared of mental illness it probably has to touch your life before you understand.

  15. Yes Talli she was so much fun to work with,maybe today it wouldn't have been such a secret.


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