A note on EMPTY BEDS by writer Julia Cranney
I wrote the below post just before my play EMPTY BEDS opened at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. Since then it's been transferred to the Arcola Theatre, London (as part of their EH to E8 Pick of the Fringe season 2016) and the Galway Fringe in 2017. It is now showing in a double bill with my other play MOMENTS as part of Pennyworth Productions #PWORTHdoublebill at the Hope Theatre, Islington until Feb 17th. It is a sad indictment of this country's mental health services, that almost two years on, the situations both patients and their families are facing have worsened rather than improved; with funding, support and accessible beds continuing to be cut. I hope that two years from now, we will have made more progress. Until we do, Pennyworth Productions and I will continue to talk about these problems, loudly. I hope you will too.
My producer asked me to write this blog post a week ago- if I’m honest, nearly two weeks ago. I thought it would be relatively easy. That I’d talk a little about my play Empty Beds, tell you how rehearsals are going and why I’ve found myself acting and writing a play that follows three sisters as they journey to visit their younger brother who is a patient in a psychiatric hospital at the other end of the country.
But, I’ve found writing this blog post difficult. I’ve started and stopped and started again because I’ve really, really wanted to get this right. Because, yes, a major reason for writing this is to pique your interest in the hope that you’ll venture to see us performing at the Edinburgh Fringe this month. But alongside that, this blog and this play is borne out of over a decade of personal experiences with this country’s mental health services and a desire to improve them for future service users and their families. It’s borne from a want to share a brief insight into what it’s like to be the family member at the other end of the phone- constantly worrying that the news you’re about to receive is the big, scary, bad news you have grown to dread and accepting that 80% of the time it’s probably going to be one of the little, sad bits of bad news that arrive daily to add to your ever- growing pile of problems. Or maybe- fingers crossed- it might just be something silly, or inconsequential and mundane, or funny.
I was fifteen when my little brother was first admitted to hospital. Going from a very tight- knit family who lived in each other’s loud and gobby pockets to a family whose contact time was limited by visiting times was disorientating. Even though the terrible and turbulent months that preceded my bro’s first admission were filled with the hopeful promise of one day securing a mythical ‘bed’ that might make everything better, the first nights that he spent away from us, and the silence that filled our house is something that you don’t forget.
Being the sister of someone in the midst of mental illness is scary at the best of times. Over a decade on from my first experiences and I now have a degree, a Postgraduate Diploma, a couple of failed relationships, the beginnings of a career I’m proud of and a great collection of wonderful friends, but I still experience the cold dread of fifteen- year- old- me when my little brother is ill again. I still feel helpless and confused and angry at the world. Because whilst we’ve made some progress in the way our society values and discusses mental health problems in the intervening decade, we still have a long way to go. Last week I asked my brother what I should write about here, and he told me to say that ‘things are much better when you’re a kid’. Because as a family we’ve witnessed the madness of the total lack of holistic hand-over from CAMHS to adult services. We’ve listened to doctors who say that medical histories spanning nearly half of my brother’s lifetime are inconsequential because we need to start over now that he’s over eighteen. And it’s been ridiculous.
Faced with the ever-increasing list of problems that this transition period seems to have presented can make us look back at previous services with an air of nostalgia. But that underestimates the struggles my parents had in convincing teachers and health practitioners to take my brothers problems seriously. To acknowledge that the problems he was facing were health related and not a phase or some form of behavioral dysfunction whose solution lay in discipline. My blood still boils when I think about how my brother was treated by adults who should have known better. I don’t want somebody else’s brother or sister to be feeling like this about their teachers today. And I think that the only way we can stop that happening is to keep educating, keep talking and keep sharing our experiences. It can feel exhausting, but in a country where mental health services have been the systematic victims of spending cuts (despite government promises to the contrary), where one of the leading killers of our young people is suicide and where families are being kept hundreds of miles from their ill children because the only available psychiatric hospital beds are hours away from home, we need to do something.
I am an extremely lucky human; I come from a pair of exceptionally caring parents who have never wavered in their dedication to keeping my brother and me safe and loved. But keeping your children safe shouldn’t have to be so difficult and it shouldn’t have taken so many hours and tears from my brilliant Mum and Dad. Empty Beds is the story of three sisters whose parents aren’t capable of being so present, and as a result of this they have to take up the mantle of caring for their brother themselves. I hope that one-day stories like Empty Beds will be things of the past, and that the trauma of living with mental health problems will decrease over time.
My experiences as a family member of someone suffering with mental health problems led me to feeling able to ask for help when I was suffering with a deep and dark depression myself. It’s also made me hyper- vigilant for warning signs in other people and for that, I am extremely grateful. It might sound trite, but talking does make things better. It’s going to take a lot more talking to change things. That’s why I’ve written Empty Beds. I hope that in its own little way this play does something to show what a strange and confusing world family members are experiencing in trying to care for their loved ones in the UK.
Empty Beds is set in real-time on the last leg of the Wyld sister’s journey to visit their brother Michael. It’s a snippet of their struggle and if I’d seen it when I was fifteen I’d like to think it would have made me feel a little bit less alone in the quiet house I found myself in when my brother wasn’t there. I hope that if you’re in Edinburgh you’ll come to watch it, and stay to talk to me and my wonderful team afterwards, because like I’ve said, we’ve still got a lot more talking to do if we’re going to improve the situation we currently find ourselves in.