The Necessary Twilight

by David Gilbert

November 18, 2019

I am starting to write a book that will include my psychiatric experiences in the early nineties, a time that also heralded vast change in mental health policy and practice. The book will interweave the personal and the political, and will consist of prose and poetry fragments.

This is my first attempt at writing a fragment.

I would welcome any feedback.

Please be warned. This is not easy reading.


I went to bed as early as I could, sometimes before the night shift at eight arrived. Each time I knew that rest would not come. That to go to bed early would make things worse, the nights more interminable. That to lie awake in a psych ward with the shouts, the groans, the eerie laughter, the sounds of eternal strangers would always be an unaccustomed hell.

But each night, for weeks and months, I tried to go to bed early. As if one part of my brain could not cope with the realisation that another would continue the torment into the necessary twilight.

The three inch mattress would slump and make my bad back worse. But I did not care about my back. I slipped between the squeaky nylon sheets without having brushed my teeth. I did not care about my teeth. I would not care for my teeth, my hair, my stomach, for another three years. I would swell up to 14 stone with side-effects of this, that or the other.

And I would lie with my head on a pillow embossed with ‘Property of The Barnet Psychiatric Unit’. The back of my head burning with the imprint of those letters. One day, there would be an internal tattoo.

My mum had brought me in an easy-read book, “Oh, I am sure you’ll enjoy this one, she is such a good writer and uses pretty simple words too”. My mum, battered by the years of her son being gone from her, had brought me a Rosamund Pilcher novel that she had enjoyed. Easy fare. She had seen my descent from being able to devour Solzhenitsyn to not being able to read The Beano. That night I tried, I promise mum, I tried. Every night, I tried.

I picked it up. “She met….” I read aloud.

My brain would not engage with what was on the page, my eyes would not rest with the words, they would tear away to an inner place of hell and dwell there, before triggering my brain to remember that I was still on a psychiatric ward, and even were I to accept one word into the empty space that lay beyond my fizzing neurology, that word, or those words would only cement a recognition that I was a failure – once able to read Solzhenitsyn. Once able.

“She met…” I read aloud. My loops. My god, my nerve-racked rhythm of disconsolate abstracted pain.

After about thirty seconds of dutiful attempts (I tried mum, I tried), I threw the book at the wall. I had not got beyond the first paragraph. And the entirety of that paragraph had been forgotten. If my eyes had taken words in at all.

“She met…” I screamed. Romance, sentiment, beauty. I neither belonged there, or this gated hell. And beyond that: Words. Reading. Writing. The only thing I had ever loved – the only thing I ever wanted to be, a writer, beyond purpose and my focus. Like the twist of thousands of starlings in the dusk.

The nurse Siobhan appeared, as if she had been wired to my efforts. “Your mum told me about all the things you used to do before you were ill”. Here was another staff attempt to boost my soul, as if a soul was a balloon simply to be pumped up for the abandoned party: “Such a waste, you here, when the world needs you”.

Kind words were the worst kind of words. Encouragement the worst kind of support. Optimism the very worst of the well-intentioned efforts of the normals. Hope not far behind. Comparison lies at the heart of all such bereaved sentences. Then and now. You and them. This and that. Here and far away.

I told her to fuck off. I wanted her to rescue me. To love me. Fuck off.

I would forgive her now. I would forgive her and her training and her qualifications. No amount of that would have helped. I would forgive her if I knew how. We were both locked into what we knew. Stay with me. Fuck off. Nothing is enough. Give me. Give. Please. Fuck off. You have no idea. No. Idea. Stay.

And the terrible and unforgiving night lay ahead. She retreated behind the brown double doors, and I saw her shadow retreat down the corridor.

I got out of bed, picked up Rosamund Pilcher, threw it into the bin. Fuck off mum, I thought. How dare you wipe my nose in my impossibilities, how dare you make me throw up emotionally on your pages. And what of easy romance, what of easy fare? There was to be no easy fare.

My mind picked up the pace. Kill yourself, don’t, kill yourself, don’t, kill yourself. Into the mind-fucked extinguishing emptiness. I slipped back into bed. I had killed four and a half minutes of my life. Now I lay, looking up at the neon strip lights against the vast slabs of ceiling. How many nights did I look up at that ceiling? The one mercy is that I have forgotten many of them.

But even remembering one is enough to make me fear the bad dreams I will have tonight for remembering this at all.



(c) 2019 David Gilbert



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