I’ve made no secret of my struggles with bipolar disorder. It’s an everyday struggle and it’s even harder when you don’t have a medical aid.
Up until last year I was on my father’s medical aid. While GEMS wasn’t ideal, it covered most of the expensive chronic medication. After his unexpected death in late November, I was suddenly without a medical aid. Without a medical fund, my medication can cost around R900.00 per month. And I need all of these pills. If I want to function normally (or as normally as I can) and not want to kill myself, I have to take them.
I did some digging to try and find a cheaper alternative. A few people suggested that I try Tara, a state psychiatric hospital in Sandton. But there was another option closer to me… Weskoppies.
Weskoppies is one of those places that people joke about when they talk about “funny farms”. Let us be honest, everyone occasionally pokes fun at the mentally unstable. Insanity can be funny.
But Weskoppies is no joke.
I looked at pictures on the internet and I felt quite disturbed. The main building is a gigantic, old building. The hospital opened in 1892 and has 1400 beds. It is equally fascinating and horrifying, looking like the perfect place to shoot a horror film or a season of South African Horror Story (not giving up). I knew that I probably shouldn’t go, because it looked scary, but that was also kind of my motivation to go. I’ve always been fascinated by the macabre. The forgotten. I’ve always liked going to places that are considered strange or taboo. And Weskoppies definitely falls into that category.
So, on a Thursday morning I got into my car and I drove towards Pretoria West. As I got closer, I noticed how my surroundings started to change. The buildings around me started to look older and neglected. The people seemed more worn out by life and its struggles. It was was like I was driving to a funeral. As the GPS said that I was getting closer, I felt my anxiety begin to rise. Partly because my fucked up curiosity was tingling, but also because I was feeling… scared? Of what I might see. Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote about looking into, and becoming the abyss was echoing in my mind.
When I drove past the sign saying Weskoppies Hospital my heart started beating very fast. My spine felt cold. I drove over the bridge and there was the big entrance with the security booms. For a moment I considered spinning my car around and speeding away, but I knew that I had to do this. I had to get medication and I had to see this place, in a strange way.
As I got to the security gate I realized that it wasn’t going to be that simple. I didn’t know, perhaps out of ignorance, that you can’t just show up with a prescription. You have to go through a process. The man at the security gate was very kind and he made a few phone calls to try and help me. He then told me to drive to the outpatient building. The people sitting and standing at the entrance all looked… scary. Not really in a dangerous way, but in an entirely different, unsettling way. There was something behind their eyes, like an entire wilderness was trapped inside a human body. Some of them looked scared. Some of them looked threatening. Some seemed almost catatonic. But most of them just looked lost and defeated. As if life had given up on them.
To cut the long and boring story of how I had to go from person to person to find out about my medication, I ended up not getting it. But one of the doctors explained to me the process that I had to go through and what I had to do in order to get affordable medication. As far as state institutions go, I can tell you that I was very impressed with most of the staff. No one made me feel like I was in the way or wasting their time. They listened to me and they really tried to help.
I walked back to my car and quickly got in and locked the doors. I wasn’t really scared of the people, but I was scared of the place. There is a very ominous energy that hangs in the air. I do believe that certain occurrences and people leave behind some sort of presence, long after they leave. In the distance I could see the big building that I saw on the internet. I wanted to drive towards it. I wanted to see it up close. But I started my car and I drove away because I knew that I needed to get out of there. In the time since that day I’ve been thinking a lot about the people of Weskoppies. I think that part of the reason is because I realized that someone like me could have very easily ended up in a place like that. Back in the Apartheid years, people were sent to these places for many things, even for being gay. Psychiatric treatment has evolved very much over the decades, but there was a time when it verged on barbaric.
People need to understand that this isn’t only a place for schizophrenics or the criminally insane. It is a place for people with all kinds of psychological and psychiatric problems.
So many people spend their lives in and out of these places. Some of them never even leave.
Many of them are forgotten, locked away where they can not disturb society.
How did they end up there? Why?
What happened to them?