StoriesPart of A Drop in the Ocean

Beth Hopkins on what asylum and sanctuary mean to her

It’s been quite a journey to arrive at my piece, an embroidered pillowcase from Bethlem Hospital.

Beth Hopkins

  • Essay

The brief [for the exhibition 'Reclaiming Asylum' at Bethlem Hospital] was to create a piece exploring the notion of asylum: what might constitute refuge, sanctuary and protection today. Before my piece grew into what it is now, I had several other ideas, all of them intensely personal. For some time I considered revisiting the room I was sectioned in on the intensive care ward. I had very clear, strange memories of how ill I was there.

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Beth’s pillowcase.

I had been brought to Bethlem Hospital by the police, under section 136 (the law that allows them to take you from a public place to a place of safety). At the time, I wanted to leave the hospital and didn’t believe I needed to be there; it was a case of enforced sanctuary. Retrospectively I can see that I was vulnerable. I did not have my usual understanding of risk and needed to be protected.

My time in the room

There were several motifs in the room as I remembered it, which I could have developed into a piece along the lines of an installation. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that going back to that room could have a dangerous impact on my mental health. And there might be better, more indirect ways of revisiting what happened.

One of Beth's totems, small sculptures made from all kinds of found objects.

One of Beth’s totems, small sculptures made from all kinds of found objects.

I sat down and wrote out everything I could remember about my time in the room. It was something I thought about often, but had never written down. An image that remains particularly clear is a rubber mattress with a cigarette burn in the corner: the sheet pulled away during a struggle that ended with the nurses injecting me with the sedative haloperidol.

My usual practice explores the Thames through objects I find on the foreshore. I begin by beachcombing and then I respond to the objects I find. I realised that what I needed was something used in the hospital every day, something that I could respond to. I asked Sam [a curator at Bethlem Gallery] if it would be possible to get hold of a hospital sheet and perhaps a pillowcase.

I began embroidering

Sam came through for me and I began embroidering my story onto a pillowcover. Beds are highly symbolic to me: when I am manic I cannot sleep, but when I am depressed I can sleep for over 18 hours a day. Bed is both a source of sanctuary, a place to hide from the world, and a place where negative thoughts become magnified, leading to far worse depression. The hospital pillow I was using would have had many sleepless patients lay their heads on it.

There were still many decisions to make: should it be black thread or coloured? Should it include images or just text? I looked at the embroidery of Agnes Richter, who had been a patient at an Austrian asylum in the 1890s. She had embroidered her thoughts onto a straitjacket during her time in the asylum. Some parts of her jacket are unreadable, as they have been overstitched so many times.

I considered turning the pillowcase inside out so you could only see the back of the stitching, but I felt the integrity of the piece depended on my being frank about what had happened.

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Agnes Richter’a embroidered jacket.

Asylum and sanctuary

At times I found it hard embroidering my story onto the cushion, so to give myself a break I also embroidered song lyrics (Jeff Buckley’s 'Lilac Wine') and a poetry (Emily Dickinson’s 'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain'), both of which I would repeat to myself whilst trying to sleep in hospital, focusing on remembering the words instead of counting sheep.

Whilst I stitched I also began to think about the original brief. What are asylum and sanctuary to me? I began to form a Manifesto for a New Asylum and embroidered this onto the cushion too.

‘Women’s work’ has often been considered a form of oppression, but equally it can be used to give voice. Agnes Richter and many other asylum patients the world over would have spent their lives sewing, locked in institutions. It would have been a diversion, a sort of sanctuary. And so it is for me, a way to pass time when it weighs heavy.

About the contributors

Photograph of Beth Hopkins

Beth Hopkins

Beth Hopkins is an artist based in Surrey. She works in a variety of media, including textiles, drawing and sculpture. Her work explores mental illness, creativity and recovery. You can find out more about Beth's work on her blog.