Psychiatric Epiphany Part 1: Walking to Dartford Heath

When I was growing up, Bexley Hospital was the psychiatric facility for our part of London. “You belong in Bexley, you do!” was a regular childhood taunt. In 1968, when I was 12, my Auntie Peg was admitted to Bexley Hospital, where she was given a course of ECT and she was started on the antipsychotic medication that she continued to take for the rest of her life.

Photograph of Foundation Stone Bexley Hospital laid June 29th 1899

Peg and my mother were close throughout their lives, although Peg was nine years older. She lived about a mile from us in an unusually well-located council house, right on the edge of the seriously posh Cator Estate. We saw her several times a week, and I often ran errands to her house. I was sent around for some reason on the night before she went into Bexley. She looked physically unwell: grey, thin and unsmiling, not at all her usual vivacious self. She was frightened. She could hear Clive, who lived next-door, talking to the Queen Mother about her. It seemed to have something to do with the Catholic authorities at the school where she worked. When she spoke, she whispered and warned me that people were listening.

Later, I visited Peg at the hospital with my mother, and we strolled together in the grounds. We did not go inside. After a while, Peg recovered and she continued to work as the school secretary until her retirement, but she had several relapses and further hospital admissions. She never relinquished her paranoid beliefs about Clive and the Catholics, but her fears bothered her much more when she was ill. I found the whole episode very puzzling, and I started getting books out of the library about psychoanalysis. One was Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”, an autobiography that describes many dreams. It offered very little insight into what was wrong with my aunt, but it was interesting anyway. Whilst I am certain that Peg’s illness had an effect on my choice of career, I did not go to medical school with any intention of becoming a psychiatrist. Instead, it was one of a number of factors in my background that primed me to be gripped by psychiatry when I exposed to it as a student.

In the 1960s, our family home was in Wricklemarsh Road on the Kidbrooke Park estate, a long sliver of identical inter-War, three-bedroom, semi-detached houses sandwiched between two large council estates. The first time I met Mark was in 1960, when we were both four. I was strictly forbidden to leave our front garden and go into the street. Mark lived a few doors down and he was under no such restrictions. At our first meeting, he showed me an interesting leaf that he had found which, as he pointed out, was prickly but was not holly. I invited him into my garden. In due course, we became such good friends that I cast my imaginary friends aside.

Mark was clever. He could read before he started school and we often went to the library together. He was rake thin and he was constantly hungry. Unlike me, he was good at running and football. After a year or so, my mother allowed me to roam with him, and he showed me how to get free food from shops, begging for stale doughnuts from the bakers and batter bits from the chip shop. We did a little light shop-lifting together, which was initiated by me. We got shouted at by shop-keepers. On one occasion, we were banned from a sweet shop.  Mark was a smoker by the age of seven, and he would purchase twenty cigarettes with his weekly school dinner money of two shillings and sixpence.

Mark was the third of four children. His siblings showed little evidence of his sharp intelligence. His father was a police sergeant, an oddly detached man. Their home was owned by the police force. I do not remember his mother very well, because she was rarely seen. She seemed to spend a huge proportion of her time in bed. Years later, my mother told me that Mark’s mother had been in and out of mental hospital. The household was not poor, but the children were nominally under the supervision of Mark’s elder sister, which meant that they were largely left to their own devices.

Everything about Mark and his family seemed wildly desirable to me as a child. My highly-regulated existence stood in stark contrast to the laissez-faire regime in their household. I was too young to notice Mark’s incongruous preference for spending his time at our house, where there were many rules. Quite apart from the insistence on proper table manners, there were loads of apparently senseless prohibitions, including not being allowed to play with toy guns or to use the word “bum”. Both families owned cars. We had a boringly sensible Austin A40, the first hatchback car. Mark’s family had a soft top Morris Minor, which was stylish and totally impractical for a family with four children. We ate a sensible balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables. If food was cooked at all in Mark’s house, it was dream-food such as bread-and-jam fritters. More often, Mark’s meals consisted of buttered biscuits with tomato ketchup. I imagine that his parents believed that he was getting hot meals at school, which, of course, he was not.

Photograph of a Morris Minor car

This portrait might suggest that Mark’s parents showed a complete lack of emotional warmth or engagement with their children, but this was not the case. Mark’s dad would take him fishing. On one occasion, the family went for a walking holiday in the North Yorkshire Moors. I remember a glorious day trip with them to Camber Sands in the  Morris Minor with the roof down. In retrospect, the problem was that parental warmth and engagement were inconsistent and unpredictable.

There is a much-repeated story in my family from when I was six. Mark and I were hanging around during a school holiday with a boy called Gary. Gary’s family had recently moved to the area from Swansea. He lived around the corner in a cold, bare rented house. Mark wanted us to walk to Dartford Heath, because his dad had taken him there and it was great. I was wearing a pair of Wellington boots. Gary’s mum made us sandwiches and asked if my mother had said it was ok for me to go to Dartford Heath. I lied and said she had. She was new to the area, so I imagine that Gary’s mum did not know that Dartford Heath was 10 miles away.

When I did not show up for my lunch, my mother went around to Mark’s and Gary’s houses to see where we were. She was horrified to learn that we intended to walk to Dartford Heath. The obvious danger from traffic and predatory adults was compounded by the fact that I was wearing wellies. Whatever she said to Gary’s mum left an impression, as a few days later she severely told me off for lying to her. It was fair comment but rather missed the point about the misjudgement involved in facilitating the expedition. The amazing thing is that Mark took us on the correct route, which was down Wricklemarsh Road to the Rochester Way, turn left and keep on going to Dartford Heath. We had quite a few adventures that day, but we only got as far as Oxleas Woods, maybe three miles away. We eventually drifted home at teatime. I was in a lot of trouble and I was barred from watching the television for a week. I did not bother doing anything quite like that again. It has always puzzled me why Mark chose Dartford Heath, because there were lots of parks and heaths much closer to home. Six decades later, I found some old images of Bexley Hospital on the internet and learned that it overlooked Dartford Heath. Mark had been trying to visit his mother.

Mark and I had drifted apart by the time we moved up from Infant School to Junior School. When we were 12, he had a long stay in hospital after being knocked over by a car. I visited him in hospital, which was the last time I saw him. I later heard that he had been caught trying to break into a warehouse. The story was that his father got the charges dropped. I have no idea what happened to him after that. I would like to think that something or someone rescued him from the consequences of his difficult childhood, but I fear that he was lost long before we set off for Dartford Heath.

Painting of Valley Farm

My paternal grandmother had a long life, with a backstory that could have been taken from a Thomas Hardy novel. Born in fin-de-siècle Walberswick on the Suffolk coast, she was sent to Fort William in the Highlands to be a nanny aged 14. She migrated to London in her twenties, where she was housekeeper for the socialist publisher, Victor Gollancz. She was almost 30 years old when she met my grandfather at a swimming club and she fell pregnant.  In Walberswick, the family home was Valley Farm, next to the Bell Inn. Artists took rooms in Walberswick in the summer, including Charles Rennie Mackintosh at the Bell and Phillip Wilson Steer at Valley Farm. Wilson Steer made some famous paintings of carefree children on the beach at Walberswick. My grandmother may have been one of them.

In the early 1990s, I picked up a Walberswick village guide from the church. It mentioned my family. “The Goddards were a tragic family”, it said, “all the women went mad and all the men committed suicide”. We hid the pamphlet from my grandmother, Dod, who had suffered intermittently from agitated depression through the whole of her adult life. Her grandfather, John Goddard, had taken his own life before she was born, and his wife Fanny took over the farm tenancy. John Goddard’s grave sits some way away from the family plot in the church yard. Dod’s father had fallen from a roof and died after a protracted illness during her childhood. Her mother suffered from some type of mental health problem. She remained in the household, but she was incapable of caring for her children. Fanny was, by all accounts, an extraordinary woman who managed to keep the whole family going. Her son, Louis, was seventeen when he was one of seven fishermen drowned during a storm. The tragedy is memorialised on a plaque in the church. It is said that Fanny never looked at the sea after that, although she lived less than 100 yards from the beach. The last family tragedy in Walberswick occurred in the 1980s, when an elderly cousin threw himself down a well.

Shortly after my grandmother died, I visited Walberswick and noticed that Valley Farm was up for sale. I went into the Bell Inn and, whilst ordering a beer, I mentioned to the landlord that the farm had once been occupied by my family. Learning that I was a Goddard, he said “Of course, old man Goddard topped himself, didn’t he?” The suicide had happened 100 years before. Suicide can cast a very long shadow.

Nine years after I visited Auntie Peg in Bexley Hospital, I started my psychiatry placement at Springfield Hospital in Tooting. St George’s medical students had an unusually long attachment in psychiatry, thirteen weeks. By the end of the second week, I knew that I was going to be a psychiatrist. It did not require a great deal of deliberation. It was just obvious that, by some happy accident, my aptitudes and interests were tailor-made for working in mental health.  My idiosyncrasies might look like strengths there. It is hard to know for sure whether my epiphany was due to what had gone before, but I think that there was definitely a relationship between them.