Friends in low places…

…it was my Birthday last week, I am now 47 years young. And as I started my first full-time job at the age of seventeen, it got me thinking about the jobs I’ve done in the world of work for the past 30 years; as well as wondering where that time went? I still think the thing that swung that first job job for me was asking my interviewer for a cigarette half way through the interview; she was a chain smoker and welcomed the excuse to get her cigarettes out. It was either that, the colour of my hair or the rather fetching silver skull earrings I was wearing that secured my first job…and I’m inclined to think it was the former. It’s strange, but despite the terrible damage smoking does to people’s health I’ve yet to come across a better ice breaker than the sharing of cigarettes; I gave up smoking some years ago.

Also this week I was diagnosed with depression, and I’ve found the act of acknowledging it and talking to a health professional about it very liberating. I’ve also found the process of owning my depression and looking it in the face to be empowering. This is in spite of reading various online “guidance” that tells me I should not use the “D” word openly because to do so would be to focus on a negative, I could be wrong but such guidance feels a little like the old superstition of never mentioning the devil in case he might appear, which as well as being the scientific equivalent of believing in fairies is also not particularly useful if you want to have a meaningful conversation. And I try to do all the right things (most of the time) to maintain my mental health, I really believe that managing and protecting your mind is every bit as important as looking after your physical wellbeing; surround yourself with positive influences, eat the right things (my intake of dark chocolate would be the envy of many women), listen to the right things, watch the right things and keep the company of people who want you to be your best…but even doing these does not guarantee mental wellbeing; the chemicals will have their way!

And of course like many of us today I’m also constantly exposed to well meaning motivational messages on Social Media that tell me that how I feel is entirely down to me and only me, that I need to deal with how I feel and stop whining about my metaphorical misbehaving black dog…of course these short snappy posts never mention little technical details such as the levels of serotonin in your body. Like much of what passes for good guidance these exhortations seem to ride roughshod over the science, barking their ill-conceived commands to us from hyperspace in Thatcheresque tones, “to pull ourselves together” or “snap out of it”. Of course I wish I could just snap out of it and for many years that’s what I’ve tried to do, but I know from experience that not acknowledging how I have felt in the past has not stopped it, so to deny it while its actually happening to me doesn’t seem like a sensible thing to do anymore. I don’t have the heart or stomach to pretend forever.

For many years I’d suffered with Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD as its more commonly known, and I only openly started admitting this a few years ago…once there were enough people who acknowledged its existence to make it credible. That’s not very courageous of me I know, but I never wanted to be seen to talk about it because somehow it seemed petty of me to want to focus on my trivial issues when I knew that there were so many other people in the world who had more significant mental health problems than me. My sister Alison was one such person, an academically gifted and musically talented young woman with bright auburn hair; she suffered terribly with her mental health and stepped in front of a train on December the 13th 1991. We buried Alison on a cold grey unforgiving Christmas Eve. She was 25 yrs old. It’s true what they say about the loss of those we love, you don’t get over it, you just get used to living with it.

Alison’s death was like a bomb going off in our family, sudden, violent and unexpected. Its as if a grenade was thrown into the middle of our cozy lives while we were sitting reading or watching telly with our slippers on…all the things that we had taken for granted up to that point in our lives were thrown in the air. Anger, sorrow, guilt, emotional paralysis, numbness, disbelief and distress all came together in a bitter cocktail, the taste of which has never truly gone away. I would love to tell you that it brought my family closer together, that there was a silver lining to Alison’s death that has helped us all bear it more easily; but I can’t. More than twenty years have passed and the cracks in the walls of our family have never really been fixed.

Some years after Alison’s death we found out she had been mistreated when she was in the care of the health professionals who had been tasked with her safekeeping at that most vulnerable point in her life. This horrific and most unwelcome revelation reopened and poured salt on the wounds that my family were still nursing. The new knowledge that was emerging cast a very different and dark shadow around her death. It is difficult to communicate the sense of betrayal and anger that is felt when you find out that a loved one has been neglected by the systems and people that were supposed to help them. It felt as if we were now being forced to live through Alison’s death all over again…little assistance was offered to help us find the truth.

Public Sector services and the NHS are not known for helping those who want to find out more when things have gone awry, the default position was suspicion, and trust was generally absent from proceedings, which of course will only makes things worse for people who are already trying to cope with grief and hurt…it is ironic that the most cherished part of the benevolent state chooses to display its cruelest and least understanding face at the most inappropriate time. Still, over eleven years after her death and after a great deal of pushing on closed doors and chasing mislaid medical records I and my family finally received the unreserved apology we had requested for what had happened to Alison. What she endured was the result of an individuals behavior which had gone unchecked by those who should have had oversight. What was abundantly clear was that nothing would have happened if my family had not done all the digging and made all the running. The Bill Gates observation that “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning” had not and has still not permeated the insular and insulated silos of the Public Sector.

My family never wanted or sought compensation for what happened, I’m not critical of those that do seek compensation for the right reasons, but as far as we were concerned we could not equate a sum of money with the loss of Alison’s life, that would have felt like betrayal on our part. The only thing we sought were assurances that lessons had been learned so that others would not have to go through what we went through. You can call this naive, and in some respects I would understand, but we could all spend the rest of our lives playing brinkmanship with trust, locked in circles of paranoia in which neither party moves until the other party moves, however I think trust starts with us, it starts with us extending trust to those that we think are either worthy of it or in need of it.

My greatest source of frustration with those in positions of responsibility in the Public Sector remains the oft expressed and unashamed acknowledgement of their impotence and inability to affect meaningful change in what are described as “complex operating environments that are beyond our influence”, whilst simultaneously attempting to cheerlead organisations through stormy skies in a Prozac induced euphoria. The message these leaders give is both confused and confusing; they imply that they can shape the future at the very same time as they state that the past was out of their control and was nothing to do with them…they seem to fail to see that they have had a hand in the past, they may have been good actors in bad plays, but nevertheless they were actors in the play, responsible for whatever did or didn’t happen. And as Edmund Burke so aptly put it, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”


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