Julie's younger brother Duncan went off for a weekend camp with the scouts yesterday morning. Maybe it was the unearthly hour I had to get up to deposit him at the pick-up point, maybe it was the fact he looked so small next to his gigantic rucksack when I left him, but I could feel tears starting as I drove home. I am not much of a crier usually, but this was the full lump in the throat, knot in the stomach, job. By the time I reached home I had played out a hundred different disaster scenarios in my head, everything from him losing his pyjamas to a fatal coach crash.
At least that's one thing I won't have to go through with Julie, I thought to myself, as I pulled into the drive. It was eight o'clock in the morning, she was still sound asleep. The thought of her leaving home with a rucksack seemed about as likely as aliens landing on the village green.
But it hit me then that I had gone through it all with Julie, and in fact many times. The fact that she was not going on a camping trip when I first had to leave her in a locked hospital ward did not make it magically easier. As you can imagine, it was about a thousand times worse in every respect. I will never forget the feeling of walking into the little room which she was going to call home - eventually for nearly a year. It was freezing cold, and shabby; Julie was petrified and stiff.
The staff immediately opened her suitcase, turned out everything onto the bed and started rooting through it. They were all strangers - not one had introduced themselves to me.
In fact I had no idea if they were staff or patients. I knew they were searching for "forbidden" objects, but it still shocked and hurt me to see all the little treats and surprises I had packed into the corners of her suitcase being pulled out and picked over by unfamiliar hands. Even as I tried to help her pack away her belongings into the drawers and the wardrobe, I was hustled out of the room.
They had a meeting to get to, they said, and I would have to go. She was fourteen. She was ill. I was leaving her with strangers.
The next time I was allowed to meet her was the following day in the sterile environment of a "visiting room": I was not allowed back on the ward, not allowed back in her room. She was heavily sedated, despite my explicit instructions against this, and anything I brought her from home was carefully scrutinised for hazard.
There are some things you never forget, that define a time in your life. Driving back from the hospital after that first admission, there was an extraordinary sunset; we live in a country of big skies. As I drove back over the hill towards the setting sun, I felt as if night was closing over the daughter left behind me. For a while it felt as if night had closed over the entire family. It was the beginning of a long very cold winter, and it was a long time before we felt the sun again.
Thank goodness things are better now. Although Julie still needs hospital admissions, she is older, and we all know the hospital very well by now. The hospital has changed for the better: it is a much more welcoming place, with family allowed onto the wards.
They have redecorated, and though the furniture is still shabby (the budget is tight), they have made a real effort to avoid their former institutional look. We know most of the staff by name, and these days we have the confidence to ask who they are if we don't know them. Searches still take place, but family are no longer treated with automatic suspicion. The hospital is no longer a place of dread, but a necessary place of refuge.