Out Of Sight And Out Of Mind In High Care

Mike Abrahams recently spent seven weeks as an involuntary patient at Valkenberg Hospital, a state psychiatric facility in Cape Town. This excerpt from How Body in The Chimurenga Chronic is his account of time under observation in a secure unit.

[Research material : Reading list]



Sitting alone in the reception area of Valkenberg Hospital’s High Care Unit, I am trapped in silence. I am waiting, I don’t know for what or whom. In a small glass cubicle, a young woman sits paging through a magazine. She is completely oblivious of my presence – me and my bags: a back pack and three paper bags overflowing with books, papers and more, awkwardly carried in when I arrived. The driver who dropped me handed a brown file to the woman in the cubicle and left without a word.

The sense of calm I felt on my way here is disappearing in the cold silence of the reception foyer. I look at the décor. It is mostly quilt-like embroidery framed in black and dark brown panels, hanging on sanitised walls. It has the feel of the work produced in prisons and rehab centres, institutions I know well. My eyes return to one untrained cursive stitching, which claims: “We Comfort, We Care, We Heal.” It reminds me of inscriptions at entrances of prisons that shout: “We Serve With Pride.”

A big guy with an indifferent look appears through a wooden door in the white wall. He must have been buzzed by the solitary woman in the cubicle. No introduction, no explanations of what’s to happen next or where I’m being taken too. I must simply follow him. In that brief moment when he comes through the door, the silence is broken by shouting and wailing noises. Hardly looking at me, he says, “Bring your bags,” absent-mindedly clicking a pen in his one hand. He does not help as I struggle to carry them.

I start to panic as I watch him punch a code into a small pad next to the door, which is in fact a thick metal door camouflaged with wood on the outside. As the door clicks shut close behind me, I realise there’s no easy way out of here.

I enter a relatively large open area with a cubicle where a group of nurses are standing chatting. They show little interest in me, the new arrival. I am ushered into a small office with a small table and two chairs, not very different from the room where notorious Special Branch policeman, “Spyker” Van Wyk, so-called for having nailed a detainee’s foreskin onto a table-top during interrogation, interviewed me about 30 years ago.

Memories of that interview flood over me now. I was sitting with my back to the door, alone in a small interrogation room. Every now-and-then some security policeman would put his head through the door and say “We got the piece of shit,”or “You think you could run forever,” or “We been waiting for you, you little shit,” with an aggression in their eyes that sent shivers down my spine. While I was being interrogated by a Van Tonder and a Steenkamp, who smacked, threatened and shouted at me occasionally, I sensed someone entering the room and noticed a flicker in Van Tonder’s eyes. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up into the cruel eyes of Spyker. It was the second time I saw him up close that day. He was part of the group that arrested me at home earlier.

As they were waiting to take me away, I asked to go and wash my face, looking to escape through the window. Spyker followed me into the bathroom, closed the door behind us, took out his pistol, cocked it, placed it on the washing basket and whispered, “You go ahead, do it.”

As I looked up into Spyker’s eyes in the interrogation room, he squeezed my throat from behind, choking me until I almost lost consciousness. Earlier, when we’d arrived at the security branch building, he took me into the lift and said, “Don’t worry, you won’t fall down the stairs,” while he squeezed my testicles all the way to the top floor.

But such fears are not justified here. This is not a police building, it is a psychiatric hospital. I am here because my daughter wants me alive. After another attempt to take my life, she has admitted me to Valkenberg. She believes this is what I need and I hope she’s right.

My carer returns after a while: “Get onto the scale.” He registers my weight. “Stand against the wall,” he measures my height. Then I hear another burst of human noises: screams, cries and swearing interspersed by an authoritative voice shouting: “ONE LINE! ONE LINE! ONE LINE!” which is echoed by other voices.

“Name? Age? Address?” and other basic questions and my carer leaves me alone. I sit and listen to the noises beyond this small office, trying to imagine what kind of madness I’m about to join. I sit for what feels like hours, until a new face appears.

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