So. It’s been a while. When I wrote in my sidebar that posting was likely to be intermittent, I didn’t anticipate taking six months off.  But here we are.

I’m ready to make a stab at writing about the events of last summer. Not necessarily in chronological order, but in whatever format works for me.  Some of these experiences are hard to put into words, but I will try.

* * * * * * * * *

My most vivid memory of my month-long stay at the Tenon Hospital in Paris is of a nurse I met on August 29th.

I’d just spent the longest twelve hours of my life in the emergency room, after being deposited there by a charming fireman shortly after midnight.  (In France, for some reason, medical first responders are firemen. And often attractive in my – albeit limited – experience. I have on occasion seen them out and about jogging in short shorts, and it is invariably a pleasure.)

I can’t say I would recommend an overnight stay in the Tenon emergency room to anyone.

My memory is foggy, as I had ingested (then spontaneously expelled) a not inconsiderable quantity of sleeping pills and sloe gin, but I spent a great deal of time quietly sobbing in a foetal position. I had a pulsing headache, and the overhead lights were causing me physical pain. Parked in a large room on an uncomfortable trolley bed behind a waist-high partition, I wore nothing but a standard-issue paper gown which gaped open at the back. I wasn’t permitted access to my phone or the few possessions I’d grabbed on my way out.

One fellow patient shouted for hours: variations on the theme of “let me out, you can’t keep me here against my will”.  I jammed my fingers into my ears, but there was no way to effectively block out the ranting and I remember thinking that if I wasn’t already insane upon arrival, thanks to these various assaults on my nerves and senses I’d surely be certifiable on departure.  Another patient – or it may have been the same one – defecated all over the floor.  I didn’t see or smell it, and I am thankful for this small mercy, but I heard a nurse swearing copiously about having to hose him down and mop it up.

Salvation came in the form of the on-duty psychiatrist, who had examined me when I was admitted. She’d asked me to consider a voluntary stay on their small psychiatric ward, specialised in psycho-trauma and addictions. There were about thirty beds, in single or double rooms, and most patients, she explained, were suffering from depression, or under treatment for alcohol addiction. The majority were female.  It was a calm, non-threatening environment where I could rest, recover and get the help I needed. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest this was not.

I’m not sure what the outcome would have been had I declined this offer, but it didn’t occur to me to do so.

She returned after a few hours with good news: a bed would be ready for me at 2pm, about 6 hours later. I’d just have to hang in there for a few more interminable hours.  Once on the ward, she warned me that there would be a policy of zero contact with the outside world for the first 72 hours. No phone, and no visitors. Panicking, I managed to negotiate the temporary return of my phone for an hour (and the loan of a charger) so that I could text platitudes to my nearest and dearest, no doubt frantic with worry.  I was okay. I was going to be in good hands. I was sorry for the inconvenience.  (Apparently, I’d already sent some semi-coherent texts to them from the ambulance, but I have no memory of that).

My daughter’s father, the only adult in Paris at that time with keys to my apartment, was  duly tasked with packing a bag and dropping it off that evening, without being allowed to see me. No mean feat, given we had separated a decade ago and he didn’t really know his way around my apartment, let alone my underwear drawer. I think my daughter helped him pack. I can’t bear to imagine that scene.

I was escorted across the hospital in a wheelchair – across a carpark, down several long corridors, up a lift to the sixth floor – with a blanket for modesty. My belongings had been corralled into a regulation plastic bag.  The room – number 9,  Salle Janet – was spare and institutional.  A generic hospital bed and side table, in pastel blue, which reminded me of my daughter’s Playmobil hospital set. A numbered wardrobe that had to be kept locked at all times, in case of theft, and also – I think – to stop me putting on my clothes and shoes and absconding. An armchair for the visitors I’d eventually be allowed.  A table and chair I never used.  An ensuite room with toilet and sink.  The shower was down the hall and merits a post all of its own.

The windows didn’t open, aside from a vent at the top, and there were no hooks or handles, for obvious reasons.  I was briefly amused that 1) my plastic bag hadn’t been considered hazardous and taken away and 2) my inner voice was capable of a gallows humour of sorts, even at a time like this.

Alone in my room, once the nurses had taken my blood pressure, confiscated my phone and left me a jug of water, the reality of how I had come to be there hit me with devastating force.

I curled up, I sobbed, I drifted. It had been several weeks since I’d had more than 3 or 4 hours’ sleep, and I hadn’t been eating. I’d travelled to a mental space I can only describe as my idea of hell.

Enter the nurse.

I don’t remember her name: we only met twice in the month I was there, as she was on secondment from another ward, and they soon put me on meds which scrambled my short-term memory. So I can’t describe her in any conventional way. Mid-length, mousy-brown hair, I think, drawn back into a pony-tail. A slim build. A regulation uniform.

But I will never forget the way she drew the chair up to my bed, held my hand, smiled warmly and looked into my eyes.

“I wish I was dead, I wish I’d succeeded,” I confessed, sobbing, although it’s impossible to understand now, with hindsight, how I could have said these words, let alone meant them. It’s almost unbearable to admit to them today. But she looked at me with such a gentle kindness, such an absence of judgement, that somehow the invisible line between her eyes and mine became my lifeline.

I have no idea how long that nurse stayed beside me – my notion of time that day is unreliable – but I’ll always be grateful to her.

And while I have no memory of the colour of her eyes, the comfort I drew from her gaze I will never forget.

14 thoughts on “nurse

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. Your words will lend courage to others who might be too afraid to seek help otherwise. Wishing you and your family as few bumps as possible on the road forward. Cheers.


  2. Sending you the biggest, warmest hug possible. Wishing you strength, peace and patience. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself all the love and compassion you would give someone else in your position. With love, “Trinigirl”


  3. What courage . In my opinion , if you write it down or say it then it was true .That in itself is a massive achievement. That happened to you and you are still here to tell us about it .
    I have been following your story since 2002 when I lived in Paris and I don’t want to imagine but at the same time know so well what that hospital ward must have been like . Sweety , you’re back and guess what ? We are still here ! Love always


  4. I’m so grateful to be able to read your words again. I can’t imagine the hell of that hospital but this post resonates with me so loudly.

    It’s been a long time since I last read your words. I’m glad to be able to do so again. Keep talking, we’ll keep listening. x


  5. So strong of you!
    I’m ‘chronically depressed’ (what do I hate the diagnose) myself, but I’m not able to write down my darkest moments. Not in a million years, even it’s only in my diary…
    Wishing you all the best!
    With love,


  6. I could not read this without crying. Am so glad you DID NOT succeed. Am so glad this nurse was there, without any judgement. My own experience with hospitals, doctors, nurses, sadly veers to the exact opposite – not with the patients, no, with their families. Hope you can find peace and all the help you need.


  7. I went through a somewhat similar experience with my mom when I was a teenager (she was the one hospitalized) about 25 years ago. It’s very hush-hush (even though we were all there and we know it happened) but it’s never really been ok to mention it. I’ve always kind of hated that part. That is to say, I really appreciate your openness and willingness to talk about it. I know that the internet can create a weird or often false sense of knowing someone but you really do feel like an old acquaintance. I’m learning French now and that’s made me think of you and your stories of French often over the past few months and wondering if you’re ok. (I will forever remember your bit about Ben & Jerry’s “chunky monkey”!!) And I’ve found that gallows humor can be a lifesaver!! x


    • My daughter is 14 and her dad’s first impulse was to forbid me from talking about the specifics of why I was admitted to hospital. But the therapist disagreed, and she and I both suspected my daughter knew more than she was letting on and needed clarity. So we have talked about it, a little, even about the words I spoke to the nurse in this post, as I know she may decide to read it. I needed to be honest about the fact that this happened, but that it was an aberration. I’m okay now and it’s not her job to worry about me.


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