Cities / Towns Visited: 7
Countries Visited: 4
Steps Taken Today: 19,177
Steps Taken Around the World: 555,921
We awoke to slightly better weather and another hostel breakfast, that being said this one did have chocolate as part of its spread so it was pretty clear we were in Belgium. Heading off for the day, we first veered towards the Dr Guislain Museum, housed in an old asylum, which, funnily enough, used to be run by someone named Dr Guislain, a Belgian psychiatric doctor who was one of the first to actually start treating mental illness as a medical condition as opposed to witchcraft or the invasion of evil spirits.
The first part of the exhibition was a fascinating historical look at the treatment of mental illness through the ages, from simply locking people away in prisons (or even in crypts, like being locked underground with a bunch of dead people will help if you’re already mentally unstable), through that fun period where they would just accuse you of witchcraft and burn you, to the era of straight jackets and lobotomies. It’s incredibly sad to see how poorly we, as a race, treated those who were most in need of help. From strapping them into lukewarm baths for days on end, to spinning them until blood oozed from their orifices, to sewing them into hessian sacks, ‘treating’ them with electric shock therapy, and even putting them into insulin comas because it made aggressive patients more calm (yeah surprisingly its hard to be aggressive and physically violent if you barely have enough blood sugar to keep your heart beating).Dr Guislain made great strides in treatment, building an asylum that endeavoured to stop treating the mentally ill and handicapped as criminals or burdens on society, and instead attempt to treat them as patients and teach them life skills for if and when they were released.
The second part of the museum had a few rooms of strange art displays inspired by organs, for example a room that looked like it had the capillary system of lungs hanging from the ceiling; along with a whole room walled with cross sections of dissected brains; and a room full of formaldehyde preserved organs and limbs. Once you’d passed the rather morbid displays you came to an exhibition that looked at present and future ways of approaching mental health treatment, from the invention of MRI scans, and antidepressants, to a pod that simulates how they think diagnosis of mental illness will progress in the future, harnessing DNA analysis.
The last part of the exhibition was a series of art displays on the topics of anxiety and fear, including some pieces made by patients currently in psychiatric care. It wasn’t really my cup of tea, as it was a lot of modern art that was a bit too abstract for me, but there were a few pieces that I appreciated. I believe art can be a powerful tool for therapy in mental illness cases, if used correctly, although I never found it helpful in any of my treatment, if you have a creative mind, it can help you express yourself when words fail. Never underestimate the healing power of writing, or painting, or music, or art in any of its various forms.
After leaving the museum in both a saddened but enlightenment mood, we meandered towards the historic centre to our next destination: Gravensteen Castle. Standing proud smack bang in the middle of the old town, it doesn’t even seem out of place, nestled between historic houses, peacefully flowing canals, and cobbled streets. The castle itself has been well preserved, and although much of it isn’t original, it has been restored to match its original state quite closely. Between the audio guide and the information displays it was easy enough to navigate around. With the knights hall filled with in depth exhibits of medieval armour and weaponry; to another room full of medieval torture devices, and even an original executioners sword and small axe (for cutting off the hands and feet of criminals, as you do); all the way to the view from the roof, complete with its wooden shutters on the parapets to protect the archers from incoming arrows, and the trap doors used to pour tar or hot oil onto their foes; it was an informative and exciting time warp.
After grabbing fries with stoverij sauce (essentially beef gravy with the occasion chunk of meat in it) for lunch, we weaved our way to the Belfort, the historic clock tower built in the 1300’s. Now much of Belgium and Northern France have these time pieces, complete with massive clock faces and a carillion of bells which ring out the time every quarter hour by way of beautiful little tunes. These bells are, for the most part, controlled by a massive drum with pins in it, which trigger levers to pull back and release the hammers of the bells (imagine a massive music box), otherwise they can be played by hand on what looks like a giant wooden organ setting, with a small keyboard for the small bells and a large foot controlled keyboard for the large bells. These towers were hugely important in the middle ages as they were the only way the townspeople knew the time, this was long before personal clocks and watches were owned by the masses; so people ate, worked, rested, and prayed by the sound of the Belfort. It was also used to warn the community about fires, or raids, or even happy occasions like weddings. As we climbed the tower we stopped at each level; the first with the previous two dragons which had adorned the top, but were replaced as the weather slowly destroyed them (although they have always kept the same design); the second housed a collection of some of the now decommissioned bells from the carillion, along with a highly interesting video on how bells are made (in case you were wondering, it is a long, slow process and in the end if the bell doesn’t make the correct sound they have to start all over again). Eventually we reached the top, the balcony just under the clock face, where you have a stunning view of the city, and the two massive cathedrals on either side. We were lucky enough to be standing there when the quarter hour struck and were able to experience the soothing melody of the bells up close and personal; a truly entrancing experience.
With a little spare time to kill we decided to pop into the largest of the cathedrals, St Baafs Kathedraal. It may not be name famous, but the inside was beautiful, with large amounts of black marble you would expect it to be dark and dismal, but there is such light coming in from the massive towering windows that the whole place was seemingly brighter than the majority of these giant stone monuments. I know many probably think that black marble is not an ideal colour for a building intended to represent the light of God, but to be honest I preferred it immensely to the dime a dozen grey stone churches that simply jumble into one indiscernible picture in your head after a while. We did quickly pop into St Niklaas Kerk before leaving, but with its interior withering in comparison to St Baafs, we didn’t linger long.
On the casual stroll home we stopped in the sun, just beside the canal, to rest and relax for a moment, prior to heading back to the hostel to make a quick dinner and get some shut eye before a long day to follow. While we sat, I reflected on the day, and although we had seen a lot, my thoughts kept floating back to our time in the old asylum. It is hard to imagine the horrors of having a mental illness in olden times, to be poked and prodded, locked away, bled, and even tortured in some vain attempt to cure something they had no solid knowledge about; to be so misunderstood and mistreated that there was no way recovery would have ever occurred. It is easy to see it in hindsight, but to them, with religion such a major cornerstone in their society, of course the devil was the easy answer. I suffer from my own demons, depression and anxiety have been major players in my life for 15 years, and although I have found no solace or cure in counselling, or psychiatric treatment, or any number of antidepressant drugs, I am still immensely grateful that I live in a society where I am not ostracised or locked away because of them. That I am offered, for the most part, sympathy, support and understanding. Although there is definitely a long way to go, especially when it comes to funding, and in terms of supporting and normalising men suffering emotionally, we must also look at the great strides we have made (although certainly not in all countries); from better identification and improved personalised treatments, to support groups, to greater awareness throughout our communities. If I had been born 200 years ago, it is likely I, just as many of you reading this, would have spent part of or the majority of my life in such a place, and frankly that is a terrifying and sobering thought. Do not fear admitting you’re hurting, it’s okay not to be okay, just know that (statistically) every third person you meet has been or will be a sufferer in their lifetime. We have stood where you stand; you are not alone in your fight, and we will battle through together.