The twilight zone. Part one.

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Where am I? I know that is not my ceiling above me. Is it dark because it’s morning or late at night?

Who is this man next to me?                                                                  

I can’t take the onrush of fear. I need more alcohol.  I see he is unconscious and he seems to have only one leg. This should make it easier to escape.

I need more alcohol. The plan of action is first of all get some alcohol somehow. Then and only then can I quell the shakes in order to move to the next stage. 

I accomplished the first stage via a three-quarter full bottle of vodka located in the corner on the bedroom. There was a stench of stale urine, poverty and desperation. As I finally get myself out of the front door, I hear him shouting what sounds like a military ID. He must have been a soldier….. 

Any one of these episodes should have counted as a “rock bottom” by anyone’s standards. Some of us however, stay at rock bottom for an extended period, bumping along the seabed occasionally trying to gasp for air. The problem was I fundamentally believed I deserved this half-life I had created. I never felt good enough and running through my head on repeat was a litany of “if I can’t be good enough, I will be SO bad, I will be off the scale altogether.

I was now fully adrift and under the radar from support in London. At this stage alcohol in some senses saved my life. I only survived,I believe, by having an artificial cushion between myself and reality. I am convinced had the enormity of my current reality, that I was truly alone and spiralling out of control, in a dangerous, dark underworld sunk in,  then I would have taken my life.

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The details are for obvious reasons and rather thankfully, somewhat hazy. If I try now to delve into what was going through my mind during this period, I only have a sense of desperation to ensure that as little as possible of my reality actually entered my consciousness. For that, I needed industrial quantities of alcohol. If I couldn’t find enough through the other Twilight Zone dwellers, I would steal it. I certainly found a whole skill set I never knew I had. I could still manage to put on a façade of sorts. If I got caught, they always let me off as a hormonal middle class lady. I didn’t fit the stereotype. I remember one of the street dwellers saying “here I am looking like scum, and you still manage to look like a millionaire’s daughter”. He was called Jim. He played the guitar. He’s dead now. AS far as I am aware they all are.

They were not all bad. There was a mutual support going on in that group of Throwaway People. They could see I was not used to that world. I know a group of them tried to keep me safe. They even donated from their cash meant for gut rot cider to buy me a plate of French onion soup from the café in Holland Park. One of them had been a published historian. He had a breakdown after the death of his wife, lost his home and ended up on the streets. His former publisher would arrive every so often with food parcels. By this time, the poor man feared being housed more than anything else. He would not have been able to handle it, he said.

It was a very dark period. There is one period of several months of which I remember nothing. I had been well enough to go for a Christmas lunch at a monastery with my then only friend, the poet and translator Vera Rich in whose landfill site of a home, I would take refuge from time to time. She drank like a fish too so the whole set up suited me. It was safe however and she never ever judged me. The next thing I knew I was coming round in a hospital ward. I was for the first time in my life completely psychotic. I remember it in detail. I felt euphoric.

Psychadelic

I was advising a crowd of medics and nurses looking at me aghast that I was immortal, that I was waiting for angels to take me back to my planet. I was getting messages from my planet transmitted through my very smart winter hat like a satellite dish of sorts. I was very worried that these unknown “enemies” were after me to kill me but as I was immortal this was ok. At this stage I could see the actually stationary medical equipment above me moving. I KNEW it was THEM. They were going to shoot me. It was time for me to be public-spirited:

“Could I ask you all to stand out-of-the-way?. I am about to be shot but as I am immortal that is ok. However you are NOT immortal so please stand aside as I don’t want your death on my conscience”.

I remember nothing more of that night. In the morning I was no longer psychotic. A consultant arrived and asked me if I remembered what I had been saying the night before. I assured him I could remember it all and had no idea at all where it had come from.

Soon it became clear where it had come from. I was in a lot of pain. On examination, they discovered I had stab wounds in my inner thighs and one wound which looks like an incision of my appendix. It isn’t. It’s a knife wound. The wounds were infected with MRSA and I had an extremely high temperature which had caused the delirium.

Two things really frightened me. One, that I had been stabbed and recalled nothing whatsoever about it and still don’t. The other was that I had caught sight of the date on a newspaper. It was over a month later than my last lucid memory. I had blanked out the end of December and all of January.

All I know is that when I searched my bag, I found a business card of an African pastor. He had written a note on the back saying that he had found me in Archway. I had no connection with Archway. He had called me an ambulance and got me to Whittington Hospital. This was only one of a number of real life angels who seemed to appear at the very moment I needed them most.

angel window

An additional part of the mystery is that there was no alcohol in my system. I believe I must have been preyed on while in a visibly vulnerable state and something beyond traumatic had been inflicted on me and culminated in my being stabbed. I believe my already deeply traumatised brain simply shut down and so nothing registered.

The only sensation I have is of being held somewhere against my will. Vera told me I phoned her. I said “I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know who these people are” before the line went dead. The truth is, I don’t want to know the details of what happened except that I am lucky to be alive.

Was this luck or evidence of a Higher Power? I am not sure. All I know is there were a number of occasions where I could so easily have lost my life. And yet I am still here. Many are not nearly so fortunate.

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Why do I do what I do? Why do I retraumatise myself by talking about these experiences in the hope that SOMETHING might be learned? This is why. I need to find a purpose for all of this. 

After an extended period of isolation in hospital, I was sent to a hospital in Ealing. Then a bed became available in South Kensington and Chelsea mental health unit. I had been approved for Housing in that Borough so was by this time in temporary housing from which I kept getting thrown out as I just could not cope independently at this stage. Temporary housing and hostels are not the safest of places and I was assaulted several times during this period.

When I was taken to Chelsea, I was deemed No Fixed Abode as I was between rooms in B&Bs or hostels. This meant I was admitted for an extended period to an acute ward until a plan could be put together to bring me some stability. I still did not stop drinking. I used to leave the ward to stock up on supplies which I smuggled into the ward very easily. The thing was I was officially in there for “PTSD” so as long as my drinking did not cause any Serious Untoward Incidents thereby causing a lot of paperwork, a blind eye was turned. There were a number of people labelled “alcohol dependent” on the ward who were monitored for alcohol use. They just used to visit me, as they knew I would have supplies. There were two AA meetings weekly in the main hospital and another in a church hall opposite the hospital. Did it ever occur to the staff that even one of us might have been helped there? No. I doubt they even knew that this free source of source was right on their doorstep.

However something was starting to change. I was now relatively safe. I say relatively, as a number of my fellow patients would get violent on a regular basis. I no longer required to drink to oblivion 24/7.

I was on a dormitory with five other women with a range of mental illnesses. In one of the moments of clarity I had started to experience, I decided that I had a choice. I could go under given where I now found myself, or I could learn from the experience. I chose the latter.

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I was finding out new things about myself. I realised that I was not afraid of being around people with even the most distressing symptoms.

I seemed to be able to communicate with my dorm mates better than the staff at times. Opposite me was Gloria. Gloria had dementia. The only thing she said was a repeated request for help as she was convinced she had rabies. I used to go across to her and just chat. One day, she sat up and said as clearly as can be

“I’d like to go for a walk”.

I told her I’d have to ask the staff. I think they said something like “Gloria can’t even sit up”. However they said IF Gloria got up and dressed, by all means we could go for a walk. They clearly didn’t think this would happen.

Their faces as a smartly dressed Gloria and myself strolled past the Nurses’ Office arm in arm were a picture. We had a lovely stroll. She told me about her life. She had been a seamstress at the original John Lewis. We went down the Fulham Road and back up the Kings Road and back to the ward through the back gate. I was able to tell her son that his mother had come back to us for a time. He said he had not had such a gift in years. We were both in tears. She drifted off into her own world again but she seemed at peace. I knew she trusted me. The staff were mystified “how did you get her to do that?”. In fact they were no bothering to interact with Gloria. She needed human connection and so did I. We helped one another.

I started managing to laugh again. How could I fail to when we had “incidents” such as Jeremy taking all his clothes of at South Kensington station and strolling up Fulham Road singing “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and very well too?

I was having to relearn things like having a wash in the morning and sleeping during the night like everyone else. I was aware that I had once had abilities, talents even, but had the sense that they were cryogenically suspended in another room to which I had not been given the key.

I was, without knowing it, in the very early stages of emerging from the darkness. There was a lot more darkness to come as the system there ostensibly to help me was ridden with gaps through which I fell many times.

At least however it was no longer pitch black round the clock.

I was still in the gutter, but just occasionally I had brief glimpses of the stars.

Gutter

 

 

 

 

The downward spiral

Drowning

I can pinpoint the exact moment when I crossed the line into active alcoholism rather than being a strictly controlled binge drinker. I was in Belarus with a Detective Inspector from Grampian Police. Against all odds and expectations, our combined efforts, and those of our friends in Homiel, had allowed us to arrange the repatriation of my colleagues’ remains in record time. We had accompanied the two coffins which were in a refrigerated lorry on the long drive from Homiel to Minsk. It took forever as we had to keep stopping to check the temperature. It was an unusually hot summer. We were sweltering in 34 degrees and I remember thinking” typical” that my boss was up ahead in a refrigerated lorry.

We had run the gauntlet of bureaucracy in Minsk but I had circumvented a lot of it by having blank signed letters from Sir John Everard, Our Man in Minsk, which allowed me to manufacture any random bit of official-looking paper that was suddenly demanded of us.

Finally it was done. There was nothing more we could do. The coffins were in storage ready for the Lufthansa flight to London via Frankfurt. We were on good old Belavia (NOW enjoy a pleasant flight as though apologetic for the crap flights of the past and warning us to expect at best ‘pleasant’) but their planes were two small to take crates containing coffins.

We retired to our hotel, once again back in the suites that I had bribed our way into. The DI brought out the vodka he had been given by the Homiel militia. I remember thinking “I am never going to drink that”. It was a very brief hesitation but the last time I had such a reservation about drinking for many years after that. What I know is, this time the vodka hit me somewhere differently. I have no idea what falling in love feels like but I can imagine it being something like this. Suddenly the heavy burden of unexpressed pressure, and of unreleased trauma disappeared.

God was in His heaven. All was right with the world.

I had a “where have you been all my life?” moment. I felt at one with the universe and finally, at peace with myself. It was an illusion of course, a mask, a façade, but one that became key to my basic survival until it was taken apart piece by piece.

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We returned to Aberdeen and a flurry of press activity, the ongoing existence on the first floor of the Town House of “the Bunker” where only those staff trusted with “the Truth” were hidden away working feverishly on damage limitation exercises.

I had the sense of being paraded around at this time. I was forced to go to funerals and speak at the memorial which was broadcast live. I found it hard as I did not like Ann, my boss. I found her vindictive, jealous and bitter. I did not change my views just because she had met her death in these terrible circumstances. However, I had alcohol to help suspend my set of values, and extinguish the need to care.

To begin with, it did not take much alcohol to have the desired effect but, of course, it gradually needed more and more to reach the desired oblivion. I had started to experience worrying psychological symptoms. I felt constantly as though I was about to be attacked. I had flashbacks in the sense of certain smells and sounds took me right back to the Belarusian mortuary. Alcohol could remove those symptoms. It could stop the panic in its tracks and knock me out to sleep at night. It also enabled me to LIE to the widow about what led to her husband’s death. I felt the truth bubbling up and rising in my throat threatening to strangle me. All I needed was to excuse myself and head for the nearest toilet where a few swigs of vodka would have the desired effect.

I was gradually being eaten alive by fear. Each day the list of things I “had” to drink to carry out increased. One day, I could make a telephone call, the next day I found I couldn’t without some “Dutch courage”. That continued until there was very little I could achieve without alcohol in my system. My life became dominated by finding alcohol, hiding alcohol, consuming just enough alcohol for it not, I believed, to be noticed, but still to take the edge of the ever-growing tumour of fear that was invading my entire being.

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One day I was approached, very bravely, by a colleague. She said it had been noticed that I occasionally smelled of alcohol. I can still feel the utter humiliation of that moment. She was very kind to me. However, no support was offered. I had started to drink so much that the truth would spill out of me in an uncontrolled fashion. I apparently blurted out at a Civic Reception that we had all been sold a lie about the deaths in Belarus and that there was a massive sin of omission in leaving out the details about the orgy that had taken place that day. It must have taken guts on that colleague’s part to approach me on this. I was far from ready to imagine living without alcohol to cushion me against reality however.

I was a loose cannon. I needed to be kept out of the way and silenced somehow.

I made the decision myself however. I was sitting in a Section Heads’ meeting and I was asked for my opinion on what kind of coffee machine we should have in the department. I replied “I do not give a shit”. I realised at that time that not only did I not care about the coffee machine, I also did not care about my job, or crucially, about the overseas communities with which I was working and to which I knew I was devoted. I realised that I had ceased to care and that that meant that something profoundly WRONG had happened to my personality. I had disappeared.

I packed up my desk and walked out.

Woman falling

I stepped off the edge of the cliff on which I had been teetering for quite some time. I had no parachute.

My flat became an oubliette. My days consisted of waking up feeling dehydrated and my head would start to race. I now know this “racy head” feeling was the onset of withdrawals as I would have had a good few hors unconscious without any alcohol. I would put on daytime TV and commence the operation that was getting myself into shape enough to get to the nearest source of alcohol to stop my head from racing.

Inside myself somewhere I knew what I was doing. I was killing myself by the slow method. I have a memory of walking unsteadily back to my flat past the Chinese takeaway, stepping with difficulty up onto the pavement and in my head was the line from American Pie “this will be the day that I die” running on repeat in my head. In truth I would not have cared one way or another. This was a state beyond suicide, which is an active state. I had ceased to care a damn whether I lived or died.

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And this was the beginning. There was a LOT further down to go than this.

On occasion I could somehow pull the fragments together and manage to function after a fashion. I would turn up at appointments with the Professor who is a world expert on Trauma. I was very skilled at diverting him away whenever I could sense that he was getting to the core of my trauma which went way further back than the death of my colleagues. That incident had dredged up a lot of suppressed trauma from way back. It had all been festering there like an apparently spent volcano where the lava had been boiling unseen ready to explode through faults in the hard surface. I was terrified that it was going to be unleashed and engulf me completely. I could not allow anyone near there. It was too shameful, too painful, too dark. And I had a supply of vodka in my bag to ease the pain before and after our sessions.

Women-art-by-Diana-Hansen-Young

My Psychiatrist was caught up in the idea that I was going to sue my employer with him as a key witness so our sessions were more about that than being about providing me with support. My Trade Union were well on their way to putting a court case together but I now realise I was too far gone to be a reliable witness by this time. I would be crucified.

My sense of that desperate time when I had to try to come to terms with the fact that I was no longer the International Officer. I had been my job. There was nothing else. My mother had instilled in me from early on that I was not going to make the same “mistakes” that she had in turning down a job in the Foreign Office in order to get married and have children. I was so desperate to be loved or at least accepted by my parents that I complied. The trouble with making one’s work one’s identity is that if that work is lost for whatever reason, it is like the worst form of bereavement. In fact I felt as though I had died.  I repeated over and over in my head “they think I can cope with this, they think I can cope with this”. It was dark, desperate and destructive.

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So I drank. I just drank and drank to stop myself from thinking and from feeling. The vultures were gathering. I was getting into more and more debt as my sick pay had ended and I had been formally “retired on ill health grounds”. In addition, the physical consequences of extreme alcohol misuse and overall self neglect were becoming evident. Dad had to rush me into hospital after my stomach started bleeding. There was no time to get an ambulance. Mum developed a kind of sixth sense which would alert her to my being in crisis. She would all five foot one and a quarter of her, knock my door in to get me to safety.

In the end I had to face up to the fact that I was going to lose my home. This was beyond painful and in fact writing it, I can still feel it now. There was no other option however. I dream about it even now from time to time. I am back in my old flat that was my first home of my own.  I know I shouldn’t be there but I can’t leave. I hear some stranger come through the front door then I wake up often wet with tears.

I moved back in with Mum and Dad. With my Mum primarily “policing” me, I managed to stop drinking and at least create an illusion of being sober. However, I had done nothing to address the underlying trauma. I seemed well. I returned to university to do an MSc which I never finished. The stress of exams sent me spinning back into the vortex again.

At this point, all I wanted was to run. I managed to get a job running the Moscow School of Economics Office at Manchester University so off I went with a bank account filled up with “compensation” I had accepted from my employer in an out of court settlement. I had no idea how ill I was and that as soon as I was away from the relative safety of my parents’ house, and at large in an unknown City, I would relapse immediately. I never turned up at the new job. I had finally been consumed by the trauma and drowning in alcohol. I was now fully submerged in the Twilight Zone.

Someone had switched the lights off. I did not exist.

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Together we can reach the top of the castle.

A person’s problem looms large but it is only a part of that person. We need to enlist and unleash the rest. You cannot mobilize on a deficiency any more than you can build on quicksand
Edgar Cahn
Author of “No More Throwaway People” & founder of the Timebanking movement.

Our work with our Sister City Bulawayo in Zimbabwe seemed to me to be based on a premise that we with the money and therefore the power, somehow had the right to dictate to those with less wealth and therefore less power, what was good for them. We expected nothing in return but a large dollop of gratitude. Right from the start I felt in my guts that this approach was wrong, that it was patronising and wasteful of the resources I could see were in abundance in the two communities in receipt of our largesse namely Homiel in Belarus, and Bulawayo.

I ended up on the receiving end of decisions regarding what was good for me, made by the largely well-meaning who held power over me after I became ill. I knew to my cost how it led me to be even more disconnected from any of my strengths as I became nothing but a bundle of needs to be met, and symptoms to be managed.

I knew at least that my early thinking that this was a wasteful and ultimately damaging view.

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.
Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

How did I learn to challenge the belief that compassion meant sympathy and was often more about the ego of the giver than the welfare of the recipient?

In the 1990s I was extremely privileged to be asked to arrange a visit to Aberdeen by a group of pupils from the King George VI Memorial school in Bulawayo. This was a special school in very many ways. It was for children and young people living with disabilities. They were in the UK to take part in a specially adapted Adventure holiday in Devon and they wanted to take some time to visit us in their Sister City.

My colleague who ran our Bulawayo Trust organised for the group to stay with young people with Learning Disabilities at the Rudolf Steiner School on the outskirts of Aberdeen and they helped me with the programme. It was my first experience working with the LD community and I noted that involving the took us down more creative and unexpected routes than I would have come up with by myself. They had the idea of showing the group one of our “indigenous crafts” and so introduced the group and me to a traditional “bucket mill” making wooden buckets out of wood turned using a water wheel.

I loved this group from the start. They were all highly motivated and determined. What I learned from the most however was that each pupil had a skill or ability that could be of use to one of the other pupils. Thus Thandiwe who was a wheelchair user due to having brittle bones disease had been taught sign language. She was the interpreter to the deaf pupil Umpumelelo who in turn, being able-bodied, helped Thandiwe get around in her wheelchair. I loved this assets-based approach that stressed the fact that we all, irrespective of what else is going on, have something important to give, if only the conditions were in place to allow us to do so. This became an important part of my own “journey” out of the passivity of becoming disabled myself, in my case having long-term mental health issues due to trauma

We took the group to Crathes Castle. We had a Scottish Tourist Guide showing us around and she, albeit in a kindly manner, announced that there was “no way” the disabled kids would be able to get up the spiral stairs. I mean there was even a trip stair designed to make the English invaders fall over and so give the Scots upstairs more time to either get out or get ready to fight. These kids were fighters too. As soon as their ability to get to the top of the castle was in doubt, their determination to do it increased a hundred fold. They helped one another up. Some had to go backwards up the stairs on their bottoms. It took a long time but of course, they did it. They all signed their names triumphantly in the Visitors’ Book right at the top of the castle. This small episode said so much about the ethos of the school and the extent to which it had been embraced by its pupils.

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They visited the Town Hall where my office was situated and we invited them to join us at a civic reception. Here they all are with my two guest contributors Nqobile and Mandisi right in the centre looking rather like the King and Queen on their thrones. I can tell it must have been raining as my hair is frizzy but it brings back so many memories to see them here with the guys with Learning Disability who accommodated them and helped me with the programme. My colleague Doug is in the photo, as are other members of our Aberdeen Bulawayo Trust which Doug administered. The group from left to right are Thandiwe, Lynda Fincham, Umpumelelo, Mandisi, Nqobile, Leanne, and Rosemary Drayton.

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Nqobile was born had severe cerebral palsy but he was one of the most determined young people I had ever met. There had been few expectations of him when he was born but they hadn’t counted on the sheer force of motivation in him as he grew up. I could tell he was a highly intelligent young man but that people’s assumptions regarding his difficulties with speech and so forth, somehow blinded them to this fact. I found communication with Nqobile very easy right from the start. I took on a challenge to find a way to get him some training in a specialist college. He was and still is the only African ever to get a place at Beaumont College in Lancashire. It took a lot of negotiation but together, we did it. Thanks to the seed of an idea planted after talking to Dominic Makuvachuma from Mind, also from Zimbabwe, I managed to track Nqobile down via Linked in so I am now able to give you Nqobile’s thoughts and reflections on the impact that visit had on him:

Over to you, my Zimbabwean younger brother:

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No Mountain too high!!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
The success story of a young man privileged to live with cerebral palsy.                                       
Before I left school in 1993, I was chosen to be one of six pupils to be part of the Calvert Trust Tour to England, Scotland and Devon, for three weeks. We participated in a range of sporting activities designed for people with disabilities. We also visited Bulawayo’s twin city Aberdeen and Number 10 Downing Street. Aberdeen City Council welcomed us by a reception and tour around the city with other young people with disabilities. And we were met by the wife of the former British Prime Minister John Major, behind the world’s famous door.

While I was in Aberdeen God opened an opportunity for me to have a chat with the twinning officer and I shared my vision of pursuing I.T. at Beaumont College and she expressed her interest to try to assist me to help me. I have learnt that when God puts a vision in a person He provides the right people to help to achieve it. After three months when I got back home, after three years of attempting to be enrolled at college and seeking for financial assistant, God used Miss Alison Cameron to negotiate with college authorities and College agreed. And the college offered a short course for three months and tuition fees came down from 25 000 to 4,200 pounds just for me.                                                                                  
Upon my return to Bulawayo in May 1996 I worked for the City Council of Bulawayo on a 2 year contract in human resources section as clerical assistance and assisting in training staff to use PCs. From 2001 to 2004, I started a printing business; I designed business cards, letterheads etc. from 2004 to date, I have been doing digital photos slide shows using Proshow Producer, sophisticated video editing program which allows editing video and mixing photos with sound track, all in many different formats.                                                      
It was interesting to share with other young people from Aberdeen their experiences.

Nqobile

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I am so proud of Nqobile. He has things he wants to achieve. He now lives independently, but I know he’d love to be able to drive. He has already had one lesson. If anyone can do it, he can. He does motivational speeches throughout Southern Africa. I am delighted I played a very small part in his journey.

Another of the group to whom I became very close was Mandisi Sibanda who also has cerebral palsy. She also had a great sense of humour. She was obsessed with British comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo and was always coming out with “Oh Rene” with exactly the right French accent. One day I was worried that her mobility level had declined. In fact she was pretending to be Herr Flick of the Gestapo so was mimicking his limp. She was also really into Mars Bars. I will allow my younger sister from Bulawayo to talk about this in her own words. She is never short of a few words….

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My name is Mandisi Sibanda. I was born on11 May 1978 with a disability called cerebral palsy. l started school at the age of 4 years old at King George Vl Memorial School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. By that time I wasn’t able to walk and l was using a wheel chair.
The day l shall never forget is when we were from a walk at Ascot shopping center. I recognised my mum from a distance. My mum had come to visit me. By then she was teaching in Victoria falls. I jumped from the wheelchair and l said mum l can walk and it was a big surprise for mum to see me walking. She prayed hoped for that and it was possible with the prayers and physiotherapy l got from KG VI.                                                         
I did my primary and secondary schooling at KG VI. l want to give thanks to Miss Rosemary Drayton who was our physiotherapist. And Mrs Lynda Fincham our headmistress by then who accompanied us on our trip to England and Scotland in April 1993 That was our journey of our lifetime.                                                                                          
That was the time when we met the beautiful Alison Cameron who was then the Twinning Officer between Aberdeen and Bulawayo. I really value her friendship and sisterly love she gave us. I remember the Mars Bars.                                                                                                               
I had a lot of experiences from KG VI we were always out on trips to places of interest. I was very much inspired by the trip overseas. I became a disability activist and motivational speaker for people with disabilities. I would still love to travel all around and my role model is Alison Cameron my big sis.                                                                                                    
After my schooling l did an Information Technology Computer course and l worked as a self advocate for people with disabilities with a local NGO and l used travel around Zimbabwe motivating people with disabilities which mainly focused on Children and Young People with disabilities.                                                                                                                                       
I was raised by a single parent and she is now in her old age. I am very ambitious still want to see the world and l do believe in dreams come true.

I would love to meet Alison again.

Mandisi Sibanda

 

I see that this wonderful school celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. I can see from more recent photographs that at the centre, they continue to create the conditions for young people with disabilities to live life to the full, to unlock skills, and foster the kind of determination which each member of the group had in spades. Their motto is “Still not giving up”.  I try to live my life according to their example.

“Be curious and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at” Professor Stephen Hawking. RIP

 

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An unqualified success – a tale of workplace bullying.

Bullying has been a feature not only of my early work as the “brainy one” in my school, but also throughout my working life. My most recent experiences of this were at a well-known Healthcare Think Tank where a former mentor found he could not cope with what he saw as my unmerited “rise to fame”. It was a very destructive experience and I knew that a blind eye was being turned by the organisation involved. I also knew that at the base of this was HIS insecurity further warped out of shape by a serious dollop of jealousy.

It was ever thus but when I was younger I turned it in on myself. I assumed the negativity I was receiving was due to not being good enough so I tried harder and had even more spectacular results. I didn’t realise that this was only making them worse. They resented the mirror I shone on their mediocrity, on their insecurities.

Jealousy

I know that bullying is rife in any hierarchical organisation and the NHS is no exception. There remains a culture of delay, deny and defend. There is a LOT of fear around of speaking openly about this. In my talks to staff, I allude to my own experiences in Aberdeen City Council of the extreme end of workplace bullying. There are distinct parallels with the NHS. It was very hierarchical. There was a lot of brittle narcissism at upper levels. We were at the mercy not only of unethical managers but also unaccountable politicians. There were constant “restructurings”. The place was driven by fear. When I talk about my own experiences it seems to give NHS people permission to talk, often privately at the end of presentations, as it is of course NOT about the NHS. If you note any parallels I would have to say “you might think that, I could not possibly comment”.

Bullying at work2

Here is a more in-depth account of the extreme bullying that went on in Aberdeen City Council in the 1990s:

Our Chief Executive Donald McDonald BA MSc MIEE MIME was placed in post by our Councillors chiefly one Councillor James Wyness who became Lord Provost, as he had a reputation for “getting things done”. The end always justified the means in their eyes.  For someone so apparently well-qualified, I found it really odd that he spoke a very bizarre form of English. He was from the Western Isles and so a lot of his English was a direct translation from the Gaelic. What I do know is he established a regime of fear which permeated throughout the entire organisation.

Bullying culture

I seemed to be immune personally from most of it as he needed me to persuade Mikhail Gorbachev to visit Aberdeen. He lashed out at me once and only once and that was enough to cause my skin on my neck to flare up as though I had been burned. I witnessed him pick up box files and throw them at a colleague. I remember him in the corridor late one night calling the Director of Personnel some choice names that owed more to Anglo-Saxon than Gaelic. I had to walk past them and I noticed he was able to break off immediately from being as high as a kite, berating my colleague within an inch of his life to address me like an avuncular uncle “now you get along home now. It’s very late” only to ratchet the volume straight back up again as soon as I had gone past. I remember thinking at the time that this was scarcely normal behaviour.

Fear would descend on the building as soon as he arrived. He had a highly paid whipping boy whom I shall call Phil. Phil was utterly terrified of Mr McDonald. He would do his bidding no matter what, even when his wife was having a miscarriage. Mr McDonald had noted a small mark on the 52 sets of papers for fully Council and required Phil to photocopy the whole lot all over again. Phil complied leaving his wife to go through her trauma alone.

We had purges too. McDonald suddenly took against a particular pen produced by the Tourist Board. If we had one of these in our possession we were to hand them in immediately or they would be Hell to pay. He actually hated the creator of said pen then Director of Aberdeen Tourist Board Gordon Hendry who seemed to fashion himself on Tom Selleck and certainly left McDonald behind in the charisma stakes. McDonald looked like a member of the mafia crossed with a farmer from the Outer Hebrides. No wonder he loathed Gordon. It manifested itself in an immediate obsession with removing from the planet all trace of this particular pen. Anyone caught with one was presumably off to the Gulag.

Our scouts would let us know when McDonald’s car pulled into the underground car park. The message would be relayed to the nerve centre where those of us who had daily contact with him worked. Phil for one would at this point start giving off an odour like an animal in fear.

Skunk

One morning I arrived in the office early. Phil was there almost in tears in hysteria. He quivered

There’s no milk for Mr McDonald’s tea.

Why don’t you nip down to the shop and get some before he comes?

Brilliant! Great. Yes. Brilliant!

And off he shot off down the spiral staircase like a Daddy Long Legs on speed. I imagine him stopping the traffic on Union Street and knocking old ladies out of the way in the queue in the shop in his drive to make sure all McDonald’s beverage needs were met.

McDonald duly arrived. Phil made tea to his precise specifications and did the usual routine of cowering outside the door trying to hear if McDonald was in there and whether he might be on the phone. He finally knocked and was summoned into the lair.

A few moments later, Phil shot out at great speed and I heard this bellowed behind him

Next time, if I want a fucking cup of tea I will fucking ask for one. 

That little scene was absolutely typical. He seemed inordinately paranoid and particularly of those he deemed “intellectuals”. We were soon to find out exactly why this was…

Stalin

As I mentioned in a previous blog, my Unison union representative finally reached the end of her tether and outed McDonald not only for failing to disclose his prison sentence for fraud and theft, but also stating loud and clear that “fear stalks the corridors of the Town House” in an endemic bullying culture all emanating from the top.

All Hell broke loose. McDonald called me into his office and seemed to be soliciting my support

You know I am not a bully don’t you?

bullying at work

The staff were divided between those of us brave or mad enough to come forward, and those who ran for cover. We held clandestine meetings in the Sportsmen’s Club and we had to knock three times (and ask for Rosie) before we could get in. We needed to be wary of spies. These gatherings were interesting almost as much for who wasn’t there as for who was not. The majority were in the latter category. An inquiry of sorts with a QC was called and we were asked to submit written statements. I had kept notes of incidents, dates and so forth where I witnessed colleagues being subjected to anything from verbal abuse to physical assault. I knew he was going to see the statements. I knew it could be career suicide. I wrote my statement and recall clearly standing at the post box hesitating and then thought

I have to be able to live with myself and my conscience. Would I expect colleagues to write in support for me if I went through something like this?

At that I shoved it into the post box. This led to an interview with the QC. When I read the typed version of what I had supposedly told him, it was so watered down as to be almost unrecognisable. I realise now how naïve I had been. The QC had been chosen specifically by our politicians for good reason. Perhaps there was a Masonic connection but what I do know is that he was not impartial. I also knew McDonald knew where bodies were buried. He had enough on each politician with any power to render them terrified that he would take them down with him.

He had managed to get away with a rap on the knuckles after the findings of the so-called QC but this was far from the end of the matter.

I had managed to arrange the Gorbachev visit. Here he is arriving at Aberdeen Airport.

Gorbachev

He delivered his “Peace Lecture” at 1k per table to a sell out audience at Aberdeen’s Beach Ballroom largely consisted of oil companies doing business with Russia. In addition to this commercial enterprise, he was to be given Freedom of the City. This required a lot of meaningless ceremonial and I could tell Mikhail Sergeyevich found a lot of it highly amusing. He was shaking with laughter after I told one of his aides that the Council had decided to name the dessert at the lunch after the ceremony “Perestroika Pudding”. I recall distinctly that he looked directly across at me after the aide whispered in his ear, took his dessert fork and stabbed the meringue dessert straight through the middle causing it to collapse.

My favourite moment of all though was during the Freedom Ceremony itself. Both Mikhail Sergeyevich and Donald McDonald were to sign a formal charter. Mr McDonald struggled to get the lid of the pen off. Time stood still as he fumbled with it trying with his meat pie fingers to sort it out but it would not budge. With an extremely quizzical expression, Mikhail Sergeyevich took the pen from McDonald and simply pulled the lid off, handing it back to him with a very wry smile.

Now the letters after McDonald’s name indicated that he was a highly qualified engineer with a Masters and membership of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and Institute of Electrical Engineers. This would be quite a rare combination indication a man of exceptional ability. In the audience, was someone from the Aberdeen University Engineering Department. The inability of McDonald to get the lid of the pen off, planted the seed of suspicion in his mind. He didn’t know it yet but McDonald’s regime was about to collapse.

Next morning I came into work early to get a call from our Press Officer who had become a friend and fellow conspirator. She was in a state of high excitement so I legged it across the road to her office in the other building. The wife of the suspicious university lecturer was a friend of Margaret’s. She had contacted Margaret in the evening of the ceremony and told her that her husband had checked up on McDonald and discovered that not only was he NOT a member of any engineering Institute, he had no MSc. His entire CV had been a fabrication and he was the highest paid official in our City. No wonder he despised us “useless academics” so much. He knew he was a fake. He knew he could be found out at any time.

Now we needed to get the message out there. I had the task to get McDonald to sign a letter to show that on that date he was still using those letters after his name. Margaret had tipped off a journalist from the quality press in Scotland and I hot-footed it with the hot letter in a brown envelope. This is how the story got out. Margaret and I joined forces to leak it. It was ALWAYS the women who acted. Always.

After the article appeared in the Herald my Mum was worried that it might not get noticed so she photocopied it and distributed it to all the taxi drivers at the taxi rank in Back Wynd. Taxi drivers had been given a rough time by the Council so they were ready to get the news out. After that the press went haywire. The local tabloids picked it up. It was all over the papers and in the Town House we were buying every single edition in case there were any new details coming out.

McDonald’s dictatorship had collapsed. Was he punished? No, he was allowed to take early retirement with a massive payoff. Like I said, he knew where bodies were buried so justice was never really served, but he was gone. The Labour Group who had an overall majority voted through the payment with the exception of two Councillors who just could not countenance this payoff. They were both bullied by their Comrades and they both had breakdowns. One, a firefighter, ended up seriously ill in our local mental hospital. It did not do to have a conscience under that regime.

What interested me was the distinction between those of us wired to do the right thing, despite personal risk, and speak out, and those prepared to hide behind the wall until it was all over. I naively had an unshakeable belief that the truth would out. I still have it. Would I do the same again if I found myself in such an extreme situation? Actually I would. I might do it differently. I might make more of an effort to ensure my own safety but ultimately, I would not be able to live with myself unless I told the truth.

I had been told early on that I would never make a good local government officer as I had an “overdeveloped commitment to honesty”.  How right he was…..

Truthtelling