By Kathryn F. Dawes
A drab winter’s day in London. Standard. Like any other day, the Victoria and Albert Museum swarmed with tourists, school children, academics, ready to experience a slice of British history. One could assume.
An eclectic group of three – Anna, John and Robert – entered at 11am. They weren’t colleagues. They weren’t friends. They weren’t family. They came from all over Britain and had known each other less than three weeks. A shared look of understanding and the two men embraced. Linked arm-in-arm, they advanced on the museum together. The sliver of confidence that they projected was merely in support for the other. A meek smile, a slow step forward and the group entered the museum. The minefield.
First was the sculpture room. Bathed in light, the room overflowed with life-sized figures and busts. Depictions of naked men, women and children displaying gestures of love, sexuality, power, innocence and purity. A look towards, a look away, grimace. Thoughts of children stormed John’s mind, unwanted, intrusive. The demons entered, stripped him of himself. Ritual. But the demons were pacified, leaving only a hanging skeleton of guilt, an all too familiar feeling for John. A tug of his arm, a look of solidarity and the three moved on.
Traversing through walkways, Anna froze. Stairs ahead. Her dry and cracked raw hands clutched at the railing. She moved. Pause. Two steps. Pause. Run. With heavy breathing and a leap down the final three steps, she made it. A moment to recover and the group moved on, avoiding the metal grate just steps beyond the stairs. Robert congratulated her. This was progress.
The theatre and performance room. Gleaming glass cabinets contained costumes, posters and props. Robert glanced in and his reflection glanced back. A flicker of hair, a twitch, he quickly brought himself back into the moment. Mirrors. A look of horror followed by a frenzy of hair adjustment, twitches and jolts. The urge unstoppable. Robert hated his hair. Repetitive acts of correction neutralised the pain. Minutes passed before John could calm him. To an outsider, his dark locks looked no different from when he started.
Their chatter was heard well before the schoolchildren emerged. John turned away, intent on escape. All the work he had done until now, what was it for? He turned back to face the children. With fear and inner disgust etched over his face, John walked slowly forward as they passed him, the children oblivious to the panic that their presence had caused. A single bead of sweat dripped down his long pale face onto the floor beside his worn-out sneakers.
Away from the horrors of reflections, children and irregular surfaces, the three sat down. Their breathing slowed and their heart rates dropped. Not yet out of the minefield, but momentarily away from the mines. They could take a moment of respite before the tube ride back home. John cursed himself. He had wanted to do better today. His head dropped forwards and his mop of black hair fell over his hands, streaked with grey well before his years.
Brought together through treatment, the three had faced another day. They had survived. Not yet in safety, there was much more work to be done. Bound together by the hope that their therapy would free them, the three returned back to their community. Back to Bedlam.
Kathryn Dawes is a final year medical student on elective placement at Bethlem Royal Hospital, London. This piece is based on her observations from a day outing to the Victoria and Albert Museum with patients from the Anxiety Disorders Residential Unit.
Featured image is of Bethlem Royal Hospital, by user SLaMNHSFT at Wikimedia Commons.