You are in Recovery, they told me when I last saw the Community Mental Health Team. This meant apparently that the only support I was going to be offered was access to a Work Adviser and even that never happened. Apparently at that session with a Psychiatrist and a Dual Diagnosis Worker I was not in need of any further help because, and I quote from the written report of the assessment, “she was fashionably dressed in a matching green top with neatly applied eye makeup”. Do they not GET after nearly two decades of using their services that I am able to put on a mask in even the most extremes of despair? How else would I manage to put one foot in front of the other?
Less than a month later, I was admitted to hospital in a deeply suicidal state. I was “lucky” to have been admitted at all apparently as clearly I “had capacity” and therefore not a priority. I was about to be kicked out of A&E firmly intending to end my life after I had got my beloved cat Izzy to a safe place. If I had not bumped into a compassionate member of the psychiatric liaison team whom I trust on the way out of A&E, and told her my plans, I believe I would not be sitting here writing this blog.
I used to think I knew what Recovery meant. In the substance misuse world there are very many interpretations of this concept.
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in the US say this:
Essentially, recovery is a complex and dynamic process encompassing all the positive benefits to physical, mental and social health that can happen when people with an addiction to alcohol or drugs, or their family members, get the help they need.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) also in the US define it thus:
“A process of change through which an individual achieves abstinence and improved health, wellness and quality of life”
They expand this definition into 12 “Guiding Principles of Recovery”
There are many pathways to recovery.
Recovery is self-directed and empowering.
Recovery involves a personal recognition of the need for change and transformation.
Recovery is holistic.
Recovery has cultural dimensions.
Recovery exists on a continuum of improved health and wellness.
Recovery is supported by peers and allies.
Recovery emerges from hope and gratitude.
Recovery involves a process of healing and self-redefinition.
Recovery involves addressing discrimination and transcending shame and stigma.
Recovery involves (re)joining and (re)building a life in the community.
Recovery is a reality. It can, will, and does happen.
All pretty harmless stuff really but a lot of that is conspicuous by its absence in how Recovery is now viewed in Mental Health services here. I am happy to see my recovery from alcoholism as a process however. That way it guards against the complacency that could well set in if I suddenly get into my head that I am “recovered”. Alcoholism is a condition typified by denial.
And then the “model” was taken on in the mental health world. Initially, I was all for it. I was sick and tired of being railroaded into activities that professionals considered would be good for me. I was never ever going to enjoy playing bingo on wards even when they brought in cold KFC as a “treat” to go along with it. On discharge I was no way Jose, ever ever going to be into gardening for therapeutic purposes. In rehab I loathed with a vengeance being made to make a rag-rugged lavender cushion, and would far rather do my own art than paint by someone else’s numbers. This is my trouble. I have never painted within someone else’s numbers and cannot for the life of me stay within the lines….
This, it seemed to me, might truly allow me to define what my own sense of “quality of life” was. This was for me going to be having a safe and QUIET place to live and after that find ways to “recover” my rights to be an equal participant in society. Yes, I wanted to work but this would only be possible, as I discovered to my cost, if there was a stable foundation on which to build this form of self-actualisation.
Why do I say “to my cost”? Early after discharge from my first very long admission to a mental health ward I stumbled into a meeting of my local branch of Mind. It happened to be on the subject of employment and was addressed by Doctor Rachel Perkins, a leading proponent of the Recovery model and very much of the view that Recovery and Work are bound together. At this time, I was far from well. I could appear to have “capacity”. However, I was deeply traumatised by my experiences of workplace bullying and the total lack of support from my employer when on their watch, I descended into the whirlwind of PTSD and addiction. I had been a complete workaholic. I thought my job title was my entire identity. Work was a drug to me and ended up as destructive. I saw, and still struggle not to see, work as the only indicator of worth. Without it, I did not exist.
Dr Perkins was saying exactly what I wanted to hear. I pushed myself into service user involvement work and then a work placement with my mental health trust. However, I was going home every night to a totally chaotic house. I had been housed under a known crack den when what I needed was peace and safety. I had neither. I had to adapt to the addict above me’s crack cycle which meant he would be up for three days and nights, then pass out for three more days after which he would be off on a mission to get more drugs, and so it would go on. I was doing my placement in the local drug and alcohol service, in short working with people in the chaos of addiction then going home to try to survive in yet more chaos of addiction. Of course I became ill again. Of course it delayed my “recovery ” even more.
In fact for me, given the nature of my unbalanced relationship with work and my confusion of “work” with “worth” the ‘work as an outcome’ message rammed home by the Recoveristas was deeply damaging. Only now twenty years after diagnosis, do I finally realise that the past few months in which I have been reduced through physical illness on top of further work-related trauma, I have paradoxically been closer to “recovery” as defined in the above principles than I ever have.
The doctrine of Dr Perkins et al fails to recognise the importance of the base of the pyramid that is the Hierarchy of Needs. Propelled by the agenda of a government that sees the like of myself at best as “stock” or at worst as subhuman somehow wilfully avoiding “doing the right thing”, they went straight for “self-actualisation”as if this alone was enough. It makes me wonder how many of the leading proponent of the “work cure” have themselves experienced the devastation of having no safety from squalor, poverty and negation and the sheer impossibility of achieving “self actualisation” under these circumstances when life is reduced to mere survival and nothing more.
Housing – the missing link
I estimate that lack of safe housing delayed my recovery from a combination of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related substance misuse by some fifteen years. It actually added layers of trauma. I was diagnosed after the death of my colleagues in the course of my job in international relations and in order to try to cope I self-medicated with alcohol. That in combination with an unsupportive working culture led to my retirement on ill-health grounds at the age of 32. I lost my home, as after sick pay came to an end I was unable to keep up mortgage payments.
I moved back in with my parents and with their support I appeared to be on the mend. I somehow succeeded in getting a job as Political Administrator to a Member of the European Parliament. Away from my family, I quickly disintegrated and starting on what became a dehumanising process in which what remained of my identity and my mental and physical health was shattered. Very soon I had no job, no home and was adrift in London. I managed somehow to get myself to my Borough Town Hall to declare myself homeless and they agreed to house me. I stepped that day onto a joyless merry-go-round that was to spin on for more than a decade.
Life for me became entirely about trying desperately to get help and find ways of getting my fragmented self safely across a sinkhole-ridden service landscape. My mental health and alcoholism were worsening and I became even more of a challenge to the system. I was too mad for Substance Misuse services, and too drunk for the Mental Health services. There seemed to be a chasm between Health and Social Services in Britain, with Housing seeming to exist in isolation on some other planet.
Over and over again, I appeared in hospital Accident and Emergency only to be patched up and packed off to another dingy room in some other bed and breakfast or hostel well away from where my support, such as it was, was situated. Every time I would be discharged back into these unsafe squalid places where my visible vulnerability led to me to be preyed upon leading to physical and sexual assault, and rape.
My response was to drink even more to cut myself off from my reality, and had I not done so I believe I would have taken my own life. The drinking would inevitably lead to yet another admission and a few days later another exit again back into oblivion.
I felt totally disconnected from the person I was before I became unwell, the person who ran international projects and was commended for her work in the Chernobyl zone. I knew she existed but was cryogenically suspended in another room in some other part of the building to which someone else with all the power had the key.
I was eventually given a place in a supported housing project. For the first time in years I had a safe roof over my head. The organisation clearly understood the importance to their client group often battered into oblivion by mental health and substance misuse issues of an environment in which it might just be possible to regain some dignity and start to heal. I cried with joy that I actually had a kettle and a toaster. I recall my first night there. I was so unused to being in comfortable surroundings that I thought I might not be “allowed” to sit on my bed so I sat totally motionless on an armchair not quite believing I had the right to be there.
I felt devoid of any rights by this stage. I had been stripped down to nothing and re-labelled as “vulnerable”, “complex” and “hard to reach”. I absorbed and became what was written on my labels.
It was to be a long and hard process of pushing the rock up the hill from then on but at least the rock started coming to rest a little further up each time.
I recovered sufficiently to move on from Turning Point to a social housing tenancy. This brought with it a whole new range of problems. I was simply plonked in the nearest available space with no consideration for my mental health or precarious recovery from alcoholism in this case under a very well-known crack den. Under such conditions I stepped back again on the merry-go-round of relapse and hospital admissions during which every time “unsafe housing” was writ large on my notes. I have had seriously problems with the conditions in which I was expected to live. My place was so damp, I had mushrooms growing out of the ceiling causing me long-standing respiratory problems. I was subjected to extreme anti-social behaviour by neighbours to whom it had been divulged by a Housing Officer that I was “mental”.
It became so unsafe, after yet another relapse, I became trapped as a so-called “bed blocker” for just under a year at a cost per night of more than the Dorchester on an acute mental health ward. The police had deemed where I was living too dangerous. I could have told them that years before if I had ever been asked.
These days I finally have a home in which I can live safely. It is far from perfect but I finally feel secure.
By rights, I could “recover” here. Healing does not seem like such an alien concept an in in fact I might even flourish. However….
Enter DWP Stage Left.
For whose Benefit?
These days the Recovery Model seems based a great deal on replacing terms with “positive” language. We are no longer subject to the mores of Mental Health Teams, they are Recovery or Wellbeing Teams now though in essence are exactly the same or indeed more difficult to access. We are told our labels to do not define us, that we are untapped resources, and that diagnoses must be cast by the wayside of the Yellow Brick Road to Recovery. We are taught to be resilient, regulate our emotions, and exercise radical acceptance even of the most unacceptable. We must be positive. We must be mindful. We must, we must, we must….
Buoyed up by all this positivity I now wake after a refreshing sleep in which I dreamt of unicorns and rainbows. Bluebirds lift my Egyptian cotton duvet from me and I rise in my lacy nightdress and get to my knees for my morning Mindfulness.
Then it happens….
There is a loud “THUNK” by the front door that can only mean one thing. Today’s post has contained a Benefits Form.
In one fell swoop all the fragile attempts at rebuilding a sense of worth crash to the ground.
For these forms it is necessary to clear away any vestige of positivity, and hope to God the professionals charged with providing the evidence you need are also able to make this shift. Then you have to describe in depth your worst days. I want to FORGET my worst days. I WANT to put them behind me but the system will NOT allow this. I hate to have to put in writing that I can’t manage to take care of my flat, and at times, I can’t summon the energy to have a wash. I HATE having to make sure I resist the urge to qualify any of it with something that might make me feel that bit better about myself.
And for the finale, there is the medical assessment itself. For that, you need to leave the mask behind. You MUST expose yourself in your raw and vulnerable reality to some under-qualified or unqualified stranger who has targets to make sure you are off their books for good. It is utterly humiliating, removes me from whatever sense of my own humanity I have been able to drag together, and it is designed to break people not build them up. I arrived at one with my Dual Diagnosis Worker. I was shaking with fear. The assessor commenced by barking “WHAT IS DUAL DIAGNOSIS?” and so I knew I was stuffed. The questions included a repeated demand to know why on earth I would want to leave my job in the House of Lords. He was genuinely incredulous. I had to tell him several times that it was not about whether I liked it there or not, it was the fact that I was too ill to make it out of bed at that time. He was fixated on whether I ate pot noodles. He wanted to know my preference of corner shops over supermarkets. He claimed to be a Doctor. I have no idea of what.
After this experience I felt so overwhelmed I howled like a wounded animal in the toilets of Balham Assessment Centre which has to be the grimmest venue they could find. Had the Dual Diagnosis Worker not been there, I may well have acted on my powerful impulse to end my life on the rail track.
I firmly believe that left alone, I will gradually build myself up safely to make a return to work but it hangs on a knife-edge. Just one communication from the DWP has me fighting the impulse to start drinking to oblivion and punishing myself for the failure I have very clearly become. This process wrecks any prospect of real “Recovery” as I define it. It ends up costing way more as each time it causes me to relapse, and each time it falls to ever-dwindling services to help me glue the fragments together.
It is not about rebuilding. It not about recovery. It is about punishment, punishment from a system that assumes paid work is the only indicator of worth, the only indicator of one’s right to occupy a place in society.
At the time of writing, I am going through it all again this time due to the transfer of Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments. I was on an “indefinite” award of DLA which matters not one iota. I have been discharged from mental health services for no apparent reason so have no right to access supporting evidence from them. I am not sure my GP even knows who I am. Putting in my claim by phone was in itself soul-destroying – barked questions from what appeared to be some kind of automaton “Are you terminally ill meaning do you expect not to live for more than X months? Do you have Downs Syndrome? Do you have Dementia?” I sobbed all the way through it.
The reality is I may well not survive yet another round of this ritual humiliation. I feel battered and bruised by trying so hard to rebuild my life under this punitive system which is designed to foster hatred either from other towards myself as a “scrounger” or the self-loathing which comes from feeling as though my nose is being repeatedly shoved in the pile of excrement that I, in those moments, believe I have become.
It is not easy to write this but this is the reality. Bodies like the Royal College of Psychiatrists need to hear this. They need to try to understand the realities of the gulf between the Land of Oz of Recovery, and the grim black and white reality so many of us face.
I know many doctors are burned out and when burnout happens, it is hard to access ones own humanity. I know as I have been there. It could be easy to fall into the trap therefore of joining in with the “scrounger” narrative around “fake patients” simply putting on an Oscar-winning performance to try to get something for nothing.
Have you have become so detached from your own Compassion, from the values that made you go into healthcare? Could I ask that before you judge someone before you who seems “well-presented” with “capacity”, and therefore you may consider, likely a malingerer, why not pause for a second and contemplate the possibility that there is a person in pain and in need of help who is hiding for dear life behind a very well constructed mask without which they would simply dissolve on the floor.
If even then you still can’t see beyond your own biases, then think about the waste of resources as time and time again, people like myself end up so traumatised by the impact on top of poverty, of being graded and degraded that we end spinning out of control in the revolving door.
What do you do then? Do you sigh and write us off as “fakers” draining your energies and precious resources, or do you dare to look behind the mask and your own assumptions…? Why do we not all risk being our authentic selves and then we might understand the pressures you are under, and you will perhaps realise that when we appear in front of you, we may well be well-dressed and articulate, but may just be a person in pain who needs your help.
First do no harm.
With thanks to Dr Wendy Burn, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists for helping me find the motivation to write this blog.
The section on housing is adapted from my chapter in a recently published book https://www.amazon.co.uk/Social-policy-first-Peter-Beresford/dp/1447332369. Thanks to Peter Beresford and Sarah Carr for inviting me to write about my Housing experiences.
7 thoughts on “Life by someone else’s numbers”
Very moving and quality writing as always, Ally. How much easier would it be to recover if the housing, medical support and benefits system supported that rather than (from what you say) all to frequently hindering it.
LikeLiked by 3 people
Thank you for writing this Ally. I am there too. I hope you are heard by those who need to listen. x
LikeLiked by 2 people
“She was fashionably dressed in a matching green top with neatly applied eye makeup”.
It sounds more like an Atos assessment than a mental health assessment.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Maybe they have been taking advice from ATOS. Just to add an element of surreal humour, the male Psychiatrist who wrote this is called Doctor Jewell. “Accessorise, accessorise, accessorise”
LikeLiked by 3 people
I have followed you for sometime mainly on twitter. I remember saying that voluntary work is good for Recovery as I was trying to do some voluntary work within the mental health hospital and was told it would be good for me. Little did I know that it ended up making me ill, as once again working within the health service (I had to leave my senior health service career due to my bipolar diagnosis and being so unstable) did not provide me with the support that I needed. You are so right in everything you have said about recovery. Why is it that just because we are articulate and at times strong enough to put up a good mask, the system wants to put up barrier after barrier to knock us down again and make us feel guilty for needing the support we need.
LikeLiked by 3 people
Thank you for writing this, Ally. Much of it could have been written by me, too, as I am in a similar place to that which you describe.
We follow one another on Twitter, and I cannot tell you how much it means to know other people, ‘virtually’ and in what they call ‘real life’, who are going through the mill which the state benefit system has become in the last seven years. Though of course, at the same time, I would never wish it on any one else.
I will share the life out of this article. Because I am too traumatised by what I have myself been through to even put it into words. So I very much appreciate your clarity, your articulacy, your incisiveness.
Take very good care, and you know what they say about those with carborundum at their disposal… ❤
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thanks so much. It is comments like this that keep me going. It was hard to write this one as I am really going through it right now. PIP form AND a Universal Credit review at exactly the same time. Not on purpose..of course not…. Hang in there. Sending hugs and solidarity.
LikeLiked by 2 people