Watch Out For The Normal People

“Grace has been wearing sunglasses,” said one of the nurses, “on a cloudy day.”

“And she spends all her time in her room,” said another.

It was all written in Grace’s notes.

     Inappropriate actions it read.

     Increasingly bizarre behaviour.

Everything was documented. Grace’s life spilled from the nib of a fountain pen, each step, each word, recorded and dated and open to interpretation.

“The other day,” said a doctor, “she sat on the edge of her bed and laughed out loud at nothing in particular.”

“At nothing in particular?” said a nurse.

The doctor nodded gravely and everyone turned to their notes.

“She refuses to take her medication.” The pharmacist flicked through his formulary to find the latest antidote to laughing at nothing in particular. “She claims she doesn’t need it.”

Everyone sighed into manila folders. Non-compliance they wrote, a distinct lack of insight.

I looked through the window and into the garden. “I’ll talk to her,” I said.


I stood by the bench and watched.

She sat on the grass, a box of chalks spread out at her feet, drawing on the paving slabs that marked the edge of her world. Her clothes were a kaleidoscope of colour and her hair was dyed to the deepest crimson. She was lost in the image she had created, sweeping chalk across the concrete and chewing at her nails, like a rodent.

When she saw me, she walked over to where I stood.

“I try to keep busy in here,” she said, “or I’d go crazy.”

We both smiled and she lit a cigarette.

I searched her face for the mark that separates personality from illness; the fracture line where her mind had fallen into disquiet, and pulled her towards a life interrupted.

But there was nothing.

So instead, I looked over at the drawing.

“Did you want to be an artist when you were little?” I said.

She sat on the bench and closed her eyes. “When I was very little, I wanted to be a doctor. Maybe even a psychiatrist. I think I would’ve been rather good at it.”

“I think you would too,” I said, “very good at it.”

Grace took another drag on her cigarette. “Ah,” she said, “that’s because it takes one lost soul to rescue another.” She tapped the bench with her hand, “why don’t you sit down and talk for a while?”

“Staff aren’t allowed to sit here, I’d get into trouble.”

She laughed and tucked red hair behind her ears. “Just take off your stethoscope,” she said, “I hate to break it to you, but people will just think you’re one of us.”

I smiled and looked at the drawing.

“And you lot think we’re the mad ones,” she said.


I smiled as I moved through the beige corridors, past an army of forgotten patients, each searching for a way back to their own lives. There were those who had walked many miles from the path, yet it seemed to me that some had only stumbled through a mistaken door. I smiled as I walked past steel cabinets, filled with the mistaken doors of others, and I was still smiling as I returned to the office, where doctors write with fountain pens and decide on the definition of appropriate.

They looked up as I walked in.

“What are you smiling at?” said one of them.

“Nothing in particular,” I said.

He frowned.

And I remembered to stop smiling.

And to put the stethoscope back around my neck.

Please note: My stories from the wards are just that – stories. Patients inspire me, but they are not included in my posts. No real-life patients were harmed in the making of this blog.
Artwork reproduced by kind permission.


  1. July 1, 2012 / 5:45 pm

    I love this! You have such great perception and perspective, Jo.

    I think my favourite line is: ” the fracture line where her mind had fallen into disquiet, and pulled her towards a life interrupted.”

    I always look forward to your posts, and savour the moment of opening the link. Then I slowly taste the first sentence before consuming the rest – and delighting in the aftertaste.

  2. July 1, 2012 / 5:48 pm

    What a wonderful (and thought-provoking!) story. You are so talented. I love this! x

  3. July 1, 2012 / 6:06 pm

    You understand us “broken and put back together” folk … how refreshing xx

  4. July 1, 2012 / 6:09 pm

    Very moving and beautifully written. I always enjoy your writing. I always think ‘there by the grace of God go I’.

  5. July 1, 2012 / 6:31 pm

    Hi Jo.
    My very first job, as an eighteen year old, was at a psychiatric hospital in Leavesden, Watford. There was a brother and sister in their eighties who lived there. They had been there since they were children, placed only because they were orphaned. I’ve always thought that so sad, even now and I’m in my forties.
    I loved your story.

  6. July 1, 2012 / 6:39 pm

    Once more Joanna, your words spill seamlessly from the nib, to form yet another masterpiece from heart…

  7. Philip C James
    July 1, 2012 / 6:43 pm


    You may sometimes suffer writer’s block, Jo, but when your words flow they do so precisely, humanely and with such a voice…

  8. July 1, 2012 / 6:56 pm

    I loathe the word normal. I’d rather we all aimed for extraordinary, just like your stories. X

  9. July 1, 2012 / 10:50 pm

    Your blog posts are all the better for being a relatively rare commodity – when one arrives it’s like hearing a new song by one of your favourite artists! This one is no exception.

  10. lisashambrook
    July 1, 2012 / 10:55 pm

    Like always, I love your writing Jo, such a wonderful way with words. My life became better once I’d given up wanting to be normal…after all most of us never will be!

  11. Fiona Quint
    July 2, 2012 / 3:20 am

    Brilliant Jo. So insiteful, as always you capture life brilliantly. Thanks x

  12. July 2, 2012 / 6:28 am

    What a lovely post. And what’s ‘normal’ anyway? Most of us would be bonkers if anyone looked too closely at our little quirks and fantasies.

  13. lizfenwick
    July 2, 2012 / 7:52 am

    As i read this I was reminded of a book I’d recently read …Notes From An Exhibition…. Your writing is exquisite…capturing humanity and it’s many beautiful heartbreaking forms of brokenness

  14. Julie-Ann Corrigan
    July 2, 2012 / 8:43 am

    Beautiful and wise.

  15. July 2, 2012 / 8:49 am

    You never know when you are going to get them; Like a walk’s surprise vista, the hidden trinket found in a forgotten drawer, even an envelope from Ernie. All heart-lifting moments that brighten our spirits and enrich our lives.
    Jo, your blog posts are much the same. They fall upon we lucky folk in the know, and make us stop a moment, admire and ponder.
    Thanks, Jo. You have made my day a brighter one.

  16. July 2, 2012 / 10:25 am

    I envy your talent, Jo. So precisely pinpointing the emotions and conditions of life. The memory of “the elephant” brings a lump to my throat still.

  17. Effie
    July 2, 2012 / 1:52 pm

    My sister tells me I randomly laugh. At nothing in particular.
    Don’t you? I asked her.
    She shook her head.

    I’ve been thinking about it ever since she said.
    You’ve helped me make sense of it.
    Don’t ever give up writing, Jo. You are so talented.

  18. July 29, 2012 / 8:39 pm

    This is wonderfully written and so understanding.

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