Sent to Coventry – an outsider inside reflects.

I will never forget the day I arrived in Coventry for what I assumed was a standard induction into my new freelance role as Transformation Fellow within the NHS England Horizons team.

I had not done regular paid work for 17 years having had to retire on ill-health grounds after being diagnosed with PTSD.  I had met Helen Bevan whose work I admired, at a social event. Within days after that I was contacted by members of her team offering me a position of one day per week. I was overjoyed. I felt a much-needed sense of worth return. The two colleagues with whom I spoke sounded really lovely. One in particular really understood about PTSD. I felt confident therefore that I could do this work safely and successfully.

It was arranged that I go to Coventry ostensibly to spend the day with the Helen. I assumed I would be shown round, introduced to the team and then have a practical discussion as to expectations on both sides and that there would be a conversation about support needs.

This could not have been further from what actually happened. I did not even have time to get my coat off and I was hurriedly shoved into a packed meeting room and all I could hear was Helen’s voice barking out instructions from what I now know is a spider phone. I can’t remember what they were talking about but she demanded my opinion. I was too freaked out at this stage to have an opinion on anything.

After that I was introduced to the ritual humiliation of the Monday morning Huddle. It was dressed up in terms of group hugs and ra ra cheerleading except the pom poms were bedraggled and they sought to mask that this was rather more an assassination squad than Madonna hugging her entourage before going on stage. I had NO idea what was happening. Helen was still in the ether virtually as though Big Sister was watching us. It was clear no-one knew why I was there and by this stage, neither did I.

I noticed already that the team responded to everything Helen said with clearly forced enthusiasm. Even the most hair-brained ideas were responded to by shouts of “love love love Helen” “awesome!” And the ubiquitous “FAB!”. However what she couldn’t see being in absentia, were their grimaces, the rolled eyes and the body language which screamed out “NO!”. These were early warning signs that I wish I had heeded but I was so determined to work again, to be part of a team, to be a worker among workers, a friend among friends.

It was clear also that my sudden arrival out of nowhere was causing distrust amongst the staff. They viewed me as this “friend of Helen” – a cat suddenly leaping from above among the pigeons. One was brave enough to approach me to say people did not know if they could trust me, whether I was some kind of plant ready to inform on them. I assured them I barely knew the woman but that the only way they were going to trust me was by them seeing me in action and realising hopefully that no, I was not a personal pal of the Great One and that no, running to her with tittle-tattle was not my style at all.

As for the Great Leader herself I finally got to ask her what she actually wanted me to do for this quite substantial daily fee. The response?

“I want you to sprinkle fairy dust on my work”.

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That’s clear then.

She then was perfectly frank in saying she wanted my network. She had a tendency to bring on board people with large social media following or popular blogs. It was almost as if whatever else we did was immaterial as long as our social media stats somehow bolstered HER ego (which did not require bolstering).

There was no discussion regarding likely support needs.

The day felt like being sucked into a toxic vortex, whirled around until I was incapacitated with vertigo then spat out again. I tottered out of there not quite sure what had just hit me.

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I had a chat with my coach after the visit. He asked if I had negotiated my fee, got clarity around the role and what was expected of me. No, basically, was the answer to all of that. I know I spent a large part of the day in tears as I was so overwhelmed. I just hoped that as time went on, things might become clearer.

The saving grace was the majority of the members of the team who were and are a lovely bunch. It is a pity they are not allowed to meet their full potential a lot of the time. It would seem there is a lot of brittleness at the top levels of the NHS and it does no good to draw attention to oneself either negatively or positively. The best thing is to achieve a faceless mediocrity and that way one can silently climb the ranks unnoticed.

I found the language used very odd. I had of course been out of the workforce for a very long time and suddenly I found myself immersed in Transformation-speak. My first experience before I started work there formally was a so-called “Thought Diversity Hot House”. I had misgivings already about this. It sounded a bit too much like Hot Tub for my liking and I was not ready to get in a tub with the majority of people there who included Simon Stevens. Some things are beyond even me.

This was a very shouty event. It was clearly meant to achieve a sort of Jerry Springer does Transformation tone. When I got there, there were feathers and felt tip pens on the table. I could see that it bode ill.

I withstood the Billy Graham rally tone until the last session before lunch. I was at a table of particularly serious clinicians. Our task, shouted at us, was to create something that might represent what we thought the NHS would look like in ten years time. My table commenced serious discussion on Quality Indicators and policy matters. I felt sure the whole thing was aimed at getting us revved up before lunch so in fact there was no actual serious purpose to the session. My suspicions were further confirmed when I glanced over at the next table who were busily making dogs out of balloons. At this point, I made a mental promise that if anyone at all started doing interpretive dance, I would not be seen for dust.

The teams started to feed back their “creations”. One lot plugged in a phone and so it began….music started and they began clapping and swaying. At this point I shot out the door along with a few other introverts. I was so shaken I ended up mainlining carbs at Carluccios in Waterloo once again with that “what just hit me?” feeling. It seemed like the entire leadership of the NHS were in that room and they were making dogs out of balloons and dancing like embarrassing uncles at weddings.

Interpretive dance

It was SO familiar. As I downed my pasta I realised what it was. I was LIVING in W1A which was not fiction at all. It was a documentary of this team and what they seemed seriously to believe was the answer to the issues faced by the NHS. “I know, let’s make things out of feathers, pipe cleaners and hard boiled eggs. That’ll sort it”

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I know for sure I would not have coped in the realm of the Director of Better had it not been for my colleague Carol. We shared the same sense of humour and boy, did we need it.

On one occasion we were supposed to be mounting a takeover of Skipton House. Now a proper, spontaneous invasion in the style of the storming of the Bastille with the Great One being airlifted onto the roof by helicopter I could have handled, but this was of course stage-managed and to this day, I have no idea what it was meant to achieve. I know I had to join in a group photo holding up a cardboard lightbulb and expected to shout FAB! or some other over-excited infant-style yelp. I was very near the ear of Simon Stevens who was also holding up a cardboard lightbulb. I managed to whisper “what fresh Hell is this” in said ear just to reassure him we were not all doing acid during working hours.

Soon though I settled into actual work which involved writing up summaries of articles for the online publication “the Edge”. One stipulation was that we were not to write anything negative. This made it challenging when given drivel to summarise. I recall a video I had to review which featured an earnest Swede talking about Intersectionality with reference to the Kebab Pizza which had become popular in Sweden after the Turks took over the Italian pizza restaurants in Stockholm and lo and behold the resulting pizza became really popular with the Swedes. He then went on to talk about the Burqini which had been designed for Moslem women but ended up popular with Australians keen to avoid sunburn.

Now I could clearly see how relevant all this was to hard-pressed NHS staff, so decided to give it considerable thought. On a visit to my Dad up in Morayshire, I discovered the Scottish equivalent of the kebab pizza – the Haggis and Brie Panini. I took a photo of it and put it in the article. This was probably my most successful piece of writing. This says a lot. I was taking the piss. No-one noticed.

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One of the highlights was Change Day before it became FAB. I was deputised to be part of the entourage for the Great Leader and we had a TV crew in tow. We spent the day making sheer nuisances of ourselves in Kingston Hospital. We even invaded a board meeting with no warning and certain assumptions were made that everyone would know who we were. My role that day was handbag carrier. I decided to get on with it and realised I was the highest paid porter in the NHS.

In the absence, how inconvenient, of a baby being born so that the Leader could be filmed with it, she decided instead to start feeding older patients, donned a plastic apron and started almost forcing food down old ladies’ throats who were clearly managing rather well on their own and had no idea just who this strange woman in the plastic apron was.

It was bizarre and it was certainly NOT about patients. It was showbiz and it HAD to be a one woman show or there would be Hell to pay.

I don’t want to give the impression it was all negative. It was not. I had some wonderful experiences which were actually meaningless in terms of value to the NHS and general public, but fun for us nonetheless.

Take for example the 24-hour Transformathon. This was apparently “making history”. I think perhaps it should have read “making hysteria”. I co-hosted with the Leader and made sure we divided the sessions between us ensuring that anything high-profile went to Helen. Staff were worried about her insistence on doing all 24 hours. They had one member of staff who was very experienced in television and was concerned that the quality would be affected if the two hosts did not take a break at some point. Helen was insistent on doing the entire 24 hours. I was approached by senior members of her team begging me to challenge her. They described me as their “secret weapon” as none of them felt able to challenge her in any way. I used a technique whereby I talked about myself. “Helen, I will be taking a few hours off as I have listened to the experts who feel the quality will be affected and the event is NOT about me”. I did not think I was being at all subtle but it still did not permeate at all. I realised that we were dealing with a deep lack of insight.

I know the team were disappointed that this was again a one woman show with me as a sidekick and that their own considerable talents were being as usual under-utilised. Helen herself was so wound up at one point she snapped her fingers in my face. I realised out of the two of us I was the calm one and that is saying something. As I write I can feel how surreal that whole thing was. Did anything actually change as a result of what we did? Did it justify what it cost? You know, I have to say, I seriously doubt it.

By this time I had a contract arranged via Capita which was ostensibly to arrange training and development which is NOT what I was actually doing. I had to go through an arcane procurement process including answering questions as to whether I was providing polystyrene cups for my attendees at my non-existent training courses. I had to assure Capita that I had checked the passports of all my imaginary friends working with me on the courses. It made me distinctly uneasy particularly as I had sight of an email between Helen and team making clear that Capita were renowned for not paying people on time and expressing concern that I might say something about this publicly. This work was my only regular income and I regularly was left without any payment for months on end. This took its toll on my health as I had no means of paying bills and was defaulting on rent. I had already been homeless and I knew I would not survive that experience for a second time. I started to become very unwell physically and mentally due to the relentless pressure and uncertainty.

I had numerous admissions to the mental health unit from which I continued to work. At one point I was so physically ill as I could not afford to eat, that I ended up in a high dependency unit in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. I remember tottering into the corridor hanging onto my drip stand making a call to Capita’s Polish call centre begging them to pay me. They had taken six months to do so. I was down to my last £10.

I would regularly return from Coventry so shattered I could not physically move from my front door to my sofa. I would sit on the floor by the front door until I mustered the strength to move the ten feet or so to my front room.

My contract was ended without my being told and I was instructed not to do any further work for this team. However, Helen insisted I continue as we were in the middle of a big project so for a time I was working long days, way longer than that for which I was contracted, with no idea whether I would be paid at all.

Was this a team where there was any degree of genuine psychological safety? No it certainly was not. I saw one colleague reduced to suicidal despair and they would often confide in me as they knew I understood.

Other colleagues talked about undergoing a profound personality change. Previously extroverted people found themselves turning inwards and becoming introverted. I will never forget a dearly respected colleague being taken down by the Leader. I believe her crime was to be too good at her work and was rightly being recognised for this. This made her a threat.

I would stress again this was not a psychologically safe culture for anyone never mind those of us with vulnerabilities due to health conditions.

There are many forms of bullying as I well know. This was gaslighting. This led to people either becoming Flying Monkeys and emulating the toxic behaviour, or starting to doubt themselves, to withdraw, to be afraid, ironically, to rock the boat.

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I am still suffering the consequences of this now.  I have felt so corroded by this experience that I have been declared by my medical team as unfit for work for the time being. I most certainly will not be so naively trusting in future when it comes to NHS national bodies. I was very nearly destroyed by this whole experience.

This is NOT meant as a personal attack. It is meant to illustrate that yes, patient and carer Leaders, or whatever you wish to call us, can add immense value to your work. However, for many if not all of us this is NOT merely a job. We cannot just leave it behind at the end of the working day. It requires us accessing and even reliving often highly traumatic experiences over and over in the hope that it leads to change and to improvement. It needs handling with extreme care.

It is NOT acceptable to employ us on a whim or even a hunch that is a right one. It requires a lot of consideration, a lot of clarity around expectations and absolutely vitally, it requires systems in place that enable timely payment at proper consultancy rates for consultancy level work. It is essential that conversations around support needs take place early on e.g what happens if we become unwell while at work? There must be due regard for Reasonable Adjustments in accordance with the law. I prefer to arrange my own travel for example as I get very anxious otherwise so I need to retain control over how I get from A to B. This was NOT permitted by this team despite the fact that by arranging my own travel, it would have SAVED the NHS a lot of money. In the end I covered all my own costs simply to ensure I could arrive at my destination in one piece.

I had a deep yearning to belong to the team as an equal. Because there was such a lack of clarity around why I was there, it was hard I believe for the team to see me as a colleague. I found missing out on some of the rituals that signify belonging really hard. I was asked to come to Coventry for a meeting. When I got there, at my own expense as usual, it was clear they had forgotten I was coming. The entire team went for afternoon tea to Helen’s home and I was left in the office. It was an isolating and surreal experience. Sometimes I was invited in on discussions, sometimes I was not. None of this was deliberate on the part of the team members but there needed to have been a lot more work done on clarifying exactly what my position was. I felt “othered” on a regular basis.

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Simon Stevens in the Five Year Forward View refers to us as “Renewable Energy”. In fact this is only true if due regard is given to the fact that we may bring with us all sorts of issues with which we may need support if we are to remain safe and give our best.

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I do not feel renewable, I feel expendable. I write after nearly losing my life in resus just over a week ago. The prolonged stress has re-activated my childhood epilepsy. My Consultant Neurologist believes this is due to the unbearable pressures exerted on me during my time with NHS England.

My motive in writing is that I want to make sure no-one else goes through what I did. This team was doing the right thing but went about it in the entirely the wrong way. As for me, I need to be far more business-like, less grateful for being asked, and take with a large pinch of salt any verbal promises made. Until such time as they are in writing, they must remain in the land of rainbows and unicorns which is how I came to see this team – well-meaning, dominated by the overwhelming personality of the Red Queen and occupying a realm that bore very little resemblance to reality.

I am at a crossroads now where I have to decide whether I can continue to work in healthcare. The toll this has taken on me has been massive. Thanks to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital I am here to tell the tale but I very nearly wasn’t.

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Twilight Zone II. Maelstrom of mayhem.

I remained in darkness for some time. Through being in hospital, I was now at least “in the system” which meant that I was parcelled around from B&B to hostel to therapeutic community and back again. These places were so dangerous, so frightening that I carried on drinking so once again, I could keep reality at bay.

There were moments of clarity when I wanted to get help. The trouble is the health and care services were so fragmented, there was never anyone around to respond when I was ready and time after time, the moment passed and I sunk back into the mire again.

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No matter how good a service may or may not have been, there was little or no joined up working. I was too drunk for the mental health services, and too mad for the substance misuse services. I was still in very unsafe housing. This was time and time again the trigger for further decline in my health. The routine would be that I would drink until my body could take no more. I would for example have a fit in the street, or be found unconscious, and be taken to A&E. I would then be patched up medically and exited once more back out into oblivion. Of course, I was going to end up back there. No-one was helping me break the chain. It was a self-perpetuating Myth of Sisyphus and even if they could have held the rock for me for a while, it might have helped.

Sisyphus

This could end up very repetitive, as it was repetitive. It was a macabre Groundhog Day that further drained me of any connection to humanity including inside myself. By this time I thought nothing of stealing to get what I needed. It was a means to an end.

Some snapshots that have stuck in my mind that will hopefully get over the impossibility of getting well under the circumstances I was in:

In a mental health hostel in North Kensington run by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, had a room in the basement.  In the middle of the night, a man climbed through my window. I had been drinking brandy so was not too bothered. He advised me not to worry, he was a drug dealer and was just doing his job which in this case was selling drugs to the residents in the hostel. I gave him a brandy. He told me his name. Then off he went up into the main part of the hostel where the particularly unwell people lived. At this point my public spiritedness took over and I went next door to where I knew there was an on call “waking night” social worker. She appeared at the door. I told her what was happening. Her response?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         “I am only here for emergencies, don’t bother me with this”.                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Also in that hostel, I was, as one does, minding my own business on the toilet. I suddenly found myself a foot lower than I had been. The floor had caved in. Once again, this was a hostel for people with Severe and Enduring Mental Health issues run by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Social Services Department.

After yet again being thrown out of a Therapeutic Community for continuing to drink, I found myself in the Homeless Persons’ Unit with all my belongings in a black bin bag.        I officially had a Social Worker. Information should have been available to the HPU due to my vulnerable state however, this Social Worker was conspicuous by her absence during this period. I was in a very dire “walking dead” state and yet, was packed off in a taxi to a room in what turned out to be an illegally converted property in Tottenham. At this time with such support that I had being in Kensington and Chelsea, and given the state of my mental and physical health, I might as well have been sent to Mars.                                                                                                                                                                                       There, I was so visibly vulnerable, I was preyed on by a highly suspicious character, an Iraqi, who was connected to the landlord and had a very nice flat in the otherwise derelict building. One day he dragged me into his flat and I was raped. I had a moment of clarity at this point. I remembered advice from the Foreign Office that I had been given in my old life about finding myself sexually assaulted in an Arabic-speaking country. There was a phrase they advised women to say which might give them some space to have a chance to escape. How I remembered it I will never know. It was Ramadan. I shamed him in front of Allah. He pulled away and I ran for the door having the presence of mind to grab some dodgy looking leaflets in Arabic on the way.

I ran to a phone box right outside White Hart Lane stadium and called the police. I was taken to the Rape Unit in Wood Green. It was remarked what an excellent witness I was. In truth, I did not care one iota about any of it. I relayed information like an automaton. I didn’t want it to happen to anyone else. In the end I didn’t press charges. I knew I would not withstand a trial and I knew they would make mincemeat of me in court. He was released and I had to go on living in the same building as him.  I was too dead inside to care.

However, that did not last long. We were raided by Home Office officials in the middle of the night. They were after the lovely Ismail, a Turkish Kurd who had been tortured. I would hear him screaming in the night. He was represented by the Victims of Torture charity. He trusted me. He wouldn’t come to the door unless I helped him so I found myself the go between, in the corridor in my PJs, between him and the Home Office. He eventually agreed to go with them. I took the opportunity to fill the Home Office people in on some details. I told them Ismail appeared genuine and they should contact the Victims of Torture charity. I told them that it was not him they should be after but the other guy. I told them he was living under an assumed name and then told them his real name. There was a reaction. Then I gave them the Islamic Fundamentalist leaflets that I had grabbed. All I know is, the next day, he was gone.

I am amazed at how survival instinct occasionally stepped in and I showed strength that I absolutely had no idea I had.

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To counter balance this horror, there were lighter moments too:

In the Social Services Hostel, I managed extended periods of stability. Three of us were in a basement flat – a Malaysian woman with very severe OCD, and a traumatised Ethiopian girl Tutu. I loved Tutu. She had no idea at all how to live in the UK. Everything was so mysterious to her it was actually rather lovely. On 5th November, she thought a revolution was happening because of all the fireworks going off. I noticed she was stockpiling blocks of butter. It turned out she was putting it on her hair. She was incredibly polite and I got to know all her Ethiopian friends. I helped her with her English and she would cook me VERY hot Ethiopian stew and watch me eat it while blasting out Ethiopian jazz from her CD player. I ate all of it despite it making me feel like my head was on fire. Tutu was actually showing me that against all the odds, I could still be useful to another human being. I could still merit my place on the planet.

There were other angels along the way. In one B&B where I was particularly isolated, a local GP brought me a food parcel which he had paid for himself. The refugee I mentioned above would appear at my door with plates of Turkish food. He had nothing but he was giving all he could to me.

There had to be a breakthrough and thank God it did come. It came in the form of a Junior Doctor, a Senior House Officer, from University College Hospital. I had been scraped off the street yet again and somehow ended up coming through their A&E. I am pretty sure I was being very obnoxious to him.

First, he described me perfectly accurately as a “Maelstrom of Mayhem”. I recall replying, once again showing the extent to which I took refuge, even then, in intellect “That’s wonderfully alliterative”. And then, crucially, he said

“You should try AA as it’s a spiritual programme”. 

He also gave me the details of a substance misuse drop in service in Earls Court.

I most likely told him where he could stick it, but actually he, without either of us knowing it had planted a seed. I wish I could meet him again. He saved my life that day and does not know it.

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A couple of weeks later, I was tottering towards the Off Licence from my room in a B&B just off Kensington High Street. I was hanging on lampposts as the nerve damage had affected my mobility. I knew at the end of the row of lampposts was a source of vodka so I was a woman with a mission. It was around 9am on a Saturday morning. I got as far as St Bartholomew’s Church and there on the fence was hanging a dark blue sign with AA on it.

I diverted from my mission, and tottered down the stairs.

This was my very first AA meeting. I am hazy on the details. I know I thought they were all a bit odd. I knew that the “Chair”, ie the speaker telling his story, was a film director and I was shocked that he swore a lot. They paused at one point and asked if there were any newcomers present. Dutiful to the last, I thought that meant I HAD to speak. I followed what the others had done and said

Hello, I am Alison and I am an alcoholic.

At this moment there was a slight lightening of the load weighing me down. It was nothing spectacular but I felt something lift. I now know that that something was Hope. Hope had been absent from my life for a very long time.

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One of the people who remembers me from that first meeting is a nurse. She has since told me she doubted that I would make it. She honestly believed I might well not be alive by the time of the next meeting.

I had, it seems, found what I needed only just in time. That week, I turned up at the drop-in service which the junior doctor had told me about. Before long, I was on my way to detox at a private hospital in Marylebone and they sent a taxi to collect such belongings I had. They told me I would never have to live in a dangerous place like that again.

There was a huge ladder to climb but at least I could now see the ladder.

 

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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.

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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.

HP

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.

medieval-woman-behind-mask

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.

KGVI.jpg

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:

Nqolbile2

 

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

 

 

Alison in Blunderland.

When I arrived fresh out of university to start my new job in a local authority it was before the advent of technology. We had a typing pool and I was allocated one which would be responsible for deciphering my handwritten scrawl. I would get it in my In Tray, correct it, send it back and this process could go on for some days on a loop. I however of course had to type in Russian myself so I was instructed in the various processes involved.

I was told I had to make two copies. On one I had to hand-write the word PINK. I asked why. They said “how else will we know which one is the pink one?”. I felt myself disappear down the rabbit hole. In my naivety I then said “but it’s not pink”. She adopted the manner of someone trying to explain an iPhone to an elderly aunt. “Well, pink disnae photocopy”. That’s clear then. I tottered back to my office wondering when the Queen was about to shout “Off With Her Head”.

Off with her head

Then I discovered the obsession with grades. We had an Admin Officer who knew everyone’s grades and referred to people accordingly. “Well I heard that 5-8, say to that 9-11” etc etc. As a PO 5-8 I was advised I was in the elite and therefore had the right to a swipe card to the Water Door. I fantasised about what this was – some sort of medieval sluice or underground spring. In fact it turned out that back in the 60s it had been the home of the Water Board but the name had stuck.

No-one questioned any of this. Except me.

I wonder why so many simply follow such nonsensical meaninglessness seemingly without question whereas there are people like me who get into endless trouble by saying like an annoying three year old “But WHY?”

 

bc862b3afde7bb39bda16eb9db545fa9--mad-quotes-mad-hatter-quotes

 

This was all a useful training ground for my time with the NHS both as a patient and someone attempting to work on the inside.

Take a (not very) random example – the NHS Horizons Team. I was contracted to them for over two years via a Parcel of Rogues called Capita. I am much happier organising my own travel as I get very anxious and it helps me feel a modicum of control. Plus, as I have a Disability Railcard it actually SAVES the NHS money to allow me to do this. Not so. This group of self-professed rebels adhered rigidly to the policy of booking through some agency charging way over the odds it seems. “But WHY?”

The procurement process made the case of the pink paper that wasn’t pink seem perfectly normal. I had to pretend that I was a company delivering training and development events. I had to promise that I had checked the passports of all my staff. I also had to confirm that I was providing polystyrene cups at my non-existent training events. I finally had to provide evaluations of my non-existent events from my non existent trainees. “But WHY?”

As a patient, I have fallen down the rabbit hole many many times. I am currently occupying an acute bed that I do not need as I became so unwell with stress from working with the above team that I was unable to look after myself. Paramedics were so concerned they issued a formal safeguarding alert. At the point of admission, there should have been joined up working between the NHS and social services on working towards a safe discharge. Apparently however, I had to be declared medically fit before Social Services would take any action. Yesterday I was declared fit and there was not a social service bod to be found anywhere near me. So I am in a bed much-needed by someone else as if stuck in some surreal version of the Peckham Travelodge. “But WHY?”

Last night I encountered the arcane and labyrinthine process of trying to get pain relief at night in hospital. I have some joint and bone thing going on which from time to time gives me quite unbearable pain. I get asked to grade my pain from 1-10 and this was a 10 without a doubt. I felt sick and dizzy as a result of it. I asked for help at around 9pm.

I waited. I waited some more. Then about midnight I went to ask where they were at with getting me help. The responses included “we tried very hard to get a doctor.” I asked for specifics of just what they did. The answer was “we wrote your name in the book”. Off I went spiralling down the rabbit hole again.

rabbit hole

This time the Queen said “we have to prioritise, you know”. I discovered this book is where the details of anyone in pain or needing fluids etc at night have to be handwritten by staff. It is a bog standard notebook. Every ward has one. Then if a doctor happens to swing by, they will look at the book and decide from there whether someone needs to be seen. If pushed, the nursing staff will track down the Site Manager and based on, I don’t know, casting the runes, will then decide to proceed to contact the doctor or not which was clearly what happened in my case. By this time I was pacing the corridor in agony. The two nurses on duty told me they agreed with me, that they were both from other countries, in neither of which would such a system be tolerated. It added to their pressure and led to delays or total absence of care during the night for people like myself in dire need. This is in a hospital with its own cinema and an indoor palm tree garden. The reliance on the notebook from the local Rymans or wherever is such an anomaly. “It’s the way we do things round here” “But WHY?”

The way we do things round here

People are apparently too scared to question unless their minds are wired like mine. They are ready to accept a piece of white paper is rendered pink by writing PINK on it.

BUT WHY?

 

emperors-new-clothes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Si Ye Pambili. We MUST go forward together

Colonialism

Councillors did not restrict themselves to embarrassing the citizens of Aberdeen at home and in Europe. We did long distance humiliation too. Another of our Twin Towns (we had five) was Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. In fact a visit there was one of my earliest foreign trips in my role as International Relations Officer.

I had already felt a great deal of unease at the unequal nature of our relationship with Bulawayo. It seemed entirely based on us sending them stuff through our Bulawayo Trust which was run by a lovely colleague who was an ex para and would at least ensure the stuff we were sending was in good shape. The fact that the people of Bulawayo had no say in what we sent was not on the agenda. There was an expectation that they would be good and grateful for our largesse. I used to call it our “rusty lawnmowers for Africa Programme”,

We had been invited to send TWO delegates to an Oxfam conference being held in the City. My Councillors in their infinite lack of wisdom decided they needed to send twelve. Ten Councillors to reflect the political composition of the Council and two handbag carriers/nursemaids i.e. myself and my colleague who ran the Trust. Oxfam were horrified. It meant our hosts according to protocol would have to cover our costs and provide a programme to keep us entertained which was a huge expense and hardly fitting given the theme of the Oxfam conference was tackling poverty. The sheer arrogance of our Councillors meant that of course they basically said “Awa an’ bile yer heid” (Translation: One finger salute to Oxfam).

I realised very quickly that the Town Clerk of Bulawayo was a very astute man with a wicked sense of humour. He was to find ways to let our huge delegation know what he thought of us. After an all night flight we were treated immediately to tea with the Governor of Matabeleland North and a lengthy detailed lecture on their economic forecasts for the next year. I watched the Councillor for Torry nodding off into her plate of Madeira cake chortling to myself. Then the fun really started. We were taken from there to visit a sewage farm. There a very enthusiastic sewage farmer showed us how they were purifying human waste into water and irrigating fields with it. The stench was something to behold. This lovely farmer LOVED his work. He had a way of saying “sludge” that I still remember to this day. I thought it was hilarious. Our lot were expecting the VIP treatment and here we were, straight off the plane after a ten hour flight and now knee deep in excrement.

Then we had our first meeting at the “Mayor’s Parlour” (they retained a lot of colonial throwbacks in language and behaviour). They were very hierarchy-minded so we were seated around the table according to rank so I was right at the far end along with my colleague Doug. The head of our delegation whom I shall call Ray was not very bright and permanently attached to a hip flask of whisky. He was later to fall in the Zambesi due to drinking a flask full of Bells and I was expected to fish him out. Not. Back to this first meeting,  I remember cringing inwardly when I could tell the Town Clerk was trying to tell him that we need to redress the power imbalance. This was way beyond our Ray who said exactly the following

I know. If we give you some of our rain, you can give us some of your sun.

I am quite sure my expression of utter horror at the patronising crap emanating from our elected representatives will not have gone unnoticed by Mike Ndubiwa the Town Clerk. I had said not one word throughout. I was still very new and utterly overwhelmed. Suddenly Mike Ndubiwa turned his attention to me and said “I want to hear what YOU think”. I stammered a lot but managed to get over my view that any relationship based on one side giving and the other receiving could hardly be called a partnership in international cooperation. I then burst into tears as I was utterly terrified as I thought I had said the wrong thing.

Bulawayo TOwn Hall

Shortly after the meeting Mike Ndubiwa took me aside and said he had been very impressed by what I had said. He said

You are the only thinker in your group. I am sending them to the football as it is their level. You will be going to the races at Ascot. Make sure you are smartly dressed and then I want you to come back to me and give me your impressions

So I found myself in the owners’ enclosure at Bulawayo Ascot with the gin and tonic set, an entirely white crowd apart from one Asian. These were the remnants of the Rhodesians and they were clinging to the old ways with what I felt was a real sense of desperation. I met only one woman who appeared to have a social conscience. She was a Scot running a community shop in a poor area and actually had some friends who were black. The others seemed to interact with the black population solely through their maids. It was fascinating. They were in a bubble. They clearly knew this bubble was very close to bursting.  I feel there was an aura of enforced jollity around. The were dancing on the edge of an abyss and knew it.

This is what I reported back to Mike Ndubiwa. He was satisfied and again reiterated that I was the only thinker in our group. He liked Doug well enough but said he was a “doer” and not a “thinker”.

We were shown some fascinating initiatives in Bulawayo. I loved what they were doing in former Townships now renamed “High Density Suburbs”. They were providing people with a basic “shell” house at low cost with enough space so they could extend when their circumstances allowed. The services such as electricity were installed by cooperatives of formerly unemployed young people who had been trained to be electricians or plumbers etc in their own community again at very low cost. Now I know this stuff was Assets Based Community Development in action. I didn’t know what the way I thought and felt was called, I just knew it was right.

Culturally, I could see how much Bulawayo had to offer us in Aberdeen. Any non-white person in Aberdeen at that time would be stared at mainly because it was such an unusual sight. I met up with the fantastic Amakhosi Theatre Company, Black Umfolosi the musical group and the artists who made sculptures out of welded metal from the Mzilikazi art centre. I could see such potential for a genuine exchange rather than a patrician donor/recipient arrangement that replicated colonialism in spades.

weld art

Once back in Aberdeen I presented a seventeen page report to my Committee with my proposals for ways in which we could create a more reciprocal relationship with Bulawayo. I was sick with nerves before the meeting as I thought my report was not good enough. Now I know that most of them will not have read it. However, they had to justify the spending on their junkets to Zimbabwe so my proposals were agreed.

Alongside my projects, the junketing continued. We went back again to the celebration of the foundation of Bulawayo as a City. This is where I must thank Joshua Nkomo. I as a very pale Scot was sitting in the VIP area with no cover over  us. Now I had met Joshua Nkomo in the morning. I told Mike the Town Clerk that I had seen him that morning I was told he was still Harare. So just about to die of sunstroke I was very grateful for the arrival in a Daimler of Mr Nkomo.  He sat in his seat in front of me. He was so huge, the shadow  was big enough to save me. Thanks Joshua.

Recently I attended a celebration outside Zimbabwe House in the Strand. Though it was raining throughout there was pure joy, and a true sense of optimism.

At Zim High comission

I am grateful to the people of Bulawayo. I learned a lot from them about Colonialism. I see so much of it in Healthcare regarding Patient Engagement.

We will give you a Tesco voucher or a biscuit and a pat on the head for yet again bleeding your pain against the walls in the hope that something changes. Do they change or are the old ways so entrenched it can be surface-level only? Those with power are mightily loathe to give it up but can put up a great façade. Those who shout most loudly about being Agents of Change in my experience tend to be the most resistant to change as soon as it affects them….and that goes for politicians of any race, and public servants in healthcare or any other field.

I hope for the sake of Zimbabwe and come to that, for the sake of our NHS, that change it is finally coming.

 

 

 

 

Crime and Punishment

In times of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act. (Orwell).

In the eyes of some it is a criminal act requiring punishment even by those who know it is the truth. The act itself of putting one’s head above the parapet and going against those preferring to hide behind the wall, appears threatening, not playing the game and requires to be stamped out.

The immediate aftermath of the death of my colleagues was a whirlwind of funerals, memorials, press attention and for me, the pressure of dealing with bereaved relatives from whom the truth had been concealed.

I had started to use alcohol to try to blot out what I now know were the increasing symptoms of PTSD. I found I could drink to knock myself out to sleep and to knock into oblivion the onrush of flashbacks. It also helped me cease to care. The down side was that I had even less of a filter between my head and my mouth. The truth started leaking out in an uncontrolled manner. I became very dangerous indeed for that reason. That is when the punishment began.

I managed to keep a lid on it for a considerable time before it became patently obvious that I was out of control. I carried on working. I won major awards for my work but the toughest thing was finding myself caught between the Belarus Embassy, who were desperate to avoid legal action by the truth coming out, and my own organisation who were equally keen to avoid the truth coming out.

I have a lot for which to thank the Belarus Embassy. They offered me sanctuary – an escape from the relentless pressure in Aberdeen. I took to going down there and taking up residence at their invitation in their guest flat. It was an escape as I started to attend events with the Ambassador, have long conversations about art particularly Chagall, theatre, music, and the respective pressures we were both under in our work. He came a valued friend. We did normal things like eat pizza and his extraordinarily bad attempts at cooking in the flat “above the shop”. He believed I was the reincarnation of the Grand Duchess of Lithuania and Queen of Poland Barbara Radziwill and had beautiful boxes commissioned as a gift for me featuring her on her own and with her husband August Sigismund the Second. He bought me long stemmed roses. He took me away from the darkness for short periods. It was to no avail ultimately as I was on a downward spiral and it was to damage both of us. The clouds were gathering. The vultures were hovering.

My drinking back in Aberdeen was getting worse and worse. Every day the list of things I could not do increased. One day I could make a phone call, the next day I could not without a slug of anything alcoholic. The day I realised the effect all of this had on me was when I was at a meeting of section heads. They were discussing some project that I knew somewhere inside me I cared deeply about. However, when asked about it, I felt nothing. I said “I have no opinion”. At that stage I knew that something profoundly wrong had happened to my personality. I left the room, packed up my desk and walked out. That was the start of a whole year on sick pay.

Woman falling

I thought I WAS my work. When I realised I could no longer do it, I felt as though it was me who had died. That feeling was increased when my colleagues immediately demanded that I come in and collect my remaining belongings or they would end up on a skip. I dragged myself round there in a very vulnerable state to find my things, including gifts from children in Chernobyl like two small glass birds, had been thrown into boxes with no care or compassion, just contempt.

My GP who was also the Council’s Occupational Health Doctor had been trying to persuade me for some time to leave as the place was too toxic. He could not of course go into details but he said I was one of many colleagues being treated for stress, that it was a sick place and I would only get more ill if I remained there. However, I was devoted to the work, to the communities overseas I was helping and from whom I was learning. I had stayed on way too long and indeed I was very ill by this time. When I told him about the demand that I come in and collect my things before they threw them out, he said “they want to remove any trace of you”. By this time I wanted to remove any trace of myself. I did this by drinking myself to oblivion all day and every day. If I was my work, and I now could not work, I no longer existed. This was what it was it felt like.

My health worsened and I spiralled into debt. The Belarus Embassy continued to try to be helpful but I was being dragged into quicksand. I was in freefall. I remember overhearing Embassy staff saying “she is killing herself”. I was already dead as far as I was concerned.

thZE9PIRSA

I had been formally diagnosed with “work-related PTSD”. The doctors deliberately added “work-related” as they were urging me to take legal action. They were prepared to act as witnesses. I agreed. I had some odd idea that decency would prevail. It of course did not. I found people whom I thought were friends avoided me in the streets, whereas others whom I had not considered friends turned out to be angels in disguise.

Of course, the Council went into full defensive mode when the legal action was commenced by my trade union. Every effort was made to find other stressors for which to blame my decline into mental despair and alcohol misuse. I was summoned before a psychiatrist in Edinburgh. I went with Mum and Dad as they wanted to show him I had a decent and supportive family. I answered his questions as honestly as I could. Somehow he twisted the most innocent statement into something negative. He asked me if my sister had ever taken drugs. I replied “She’s a teenager. I have no idea”. That came out in my statement as “her sister is a known drug addict”. I can say quite categorically that this was not the case. This psychiatrist had clearly been chosen for a reason. Impartiality was not on his radar. It was distressing for my entire family.

And they decided to blame my “inappropriate” relationship with the Ambassador of Belarus and reported him to his Ministry.

Then the threats started. The female “friend” of our then Lord Provost who was the Leader of the Council involved in the incident in Homiel Margaret Smith, threatened me in the street. I recall her words exactly “you’d better watch what you are about”.

I got offered a voluntary job working for a European-funded youth project. They welcomed me with open arms given my experience of getting European funding. However when I arrived all keen to be useful again on day one I noticed something odd. I was early and spotted an erstwhile colleague from my old department scuttling hurriedly out of the building. When I got in, there was a very odd atmosphere. The warmth had gone. I was told to sit in an office and then a highly apologetic member of the charity staff asked me to leave the building immediately. They had had threats that their Council funding would be removed if I was allowed to do this unpaid voluntary job. I left the building. I had to. I could not allow this excellent charity to be damaged because of my presence.

So the punishment was to make me a pariah in the City in which I was born. And what did I do to dampen the pain? I drank. I drank to reach the stage where I felt nothing and it was taking more and more alcohol to reach the desired stage.

This was the beginning of the downward spiral. I had committed the crime of telling the truth and the punishment was to be meted out in full. But it was only the start. Things were to get so much worse.

Downward Spiral

I loved my job and I was good at it. I remain heartbroken at its loss. I do not miss the City, and I certainly do not miss the City Council. I miss being able to make a difference to people like the wonderful citizens of Homiel who gave me more than I gave them. I will never fully recover from this grief.

Grief.jpg

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, or have at least got something from it, perhaps you might consider a small donation to my Go Fund Me page. My current work in healthcare started to resemble rather too closely what I went through in Aberdeen, so at present I am unable to work until I have some time to heal. This means I have no income. More important to me however, is that my experiences mean something to my readers so please do not feel pressurised into offering me practical help. This is NOT why I am writing.

https://www.gofundme.com/AllyandIzzy

Thanks for reading this far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Truth Will Out

My return to Aberdeen along with the coffins containing the remains of my colleagues was the start of a spiral downwards for me. I was still under the illusion that this had all been a tragic accident.

In my office, a bunker had been created of those in the know who were desperately trying to keep a lid on the whole thing. I was admitted into the bunker. I was told I was to visit the widow of my colleague Iain who drowned as and when she needed me. I agreed as I felt that I had been in her place, the last one to see her husband should have been her. She had a four week old child and a four year old child who did not understand what happened to her Daddy.

I attended funerals reluctantly and an official memorial went out live on radio. I translated for Mikhail Gaponenko from Homiel. We will retain happy memories of them, is how he concluded his speech.

Then I found out. The Leader of the Council and I will name her, Margaret Smith was there that day. As soon as it became clear that Iain and Ann were missing she took the film out of Ann’s camera. I still wonder to this day what kind of mind would immediately go into “hide the evidence” mode. She had the photographs printed privately and in a drunken state, arrived at my flat late one night to show me them. They were disgusting. They showed what was beyond a drunken party featuring Belarusian and Scottish politicians. I mean, how dare they have an orgy without me invited? The Chief Executive Anne Mearns put it to me in true Jean Brodie style “I understand there was something of a libidinous gathering”. I am not averse to the odd Belarusian piss up but this was something else. It looked vile, degrading and devoid of any standards whatsoever given that this was an official visit paid for ultimately by taxpayers.

And the horrible truth was that Ann and Iain met their deaths as they were having sex behind the boat. They were at a blind spot where they could not be seen by the captain. So when the boat became loose of its moorings the Captain could not have seen they were there, he turned on the engine and the result was their deaths. I met the young man in charge of the boat that day. He went to prison. He did not deserve to.

How this impacted on me was immense. I knew that Iain was not the saintly father figure that his widow thought he was. I was still visiting her always accompanied by an HR officer and listening to her “he was such a lovely man” stories. The truth started rising in me. I could feel it growing up and taking hold of my throat. I begged to be released from my “dealing with the widow” duties as I might just tell her the truth.

The Belarus Embassy were very supportive at this time. A group of them went to Selfridges to buy toys for the two children who lost their father. They handled it all with such humanity and genuine caring that I will never forget. However they wanted assurance that there would be no legal action against Belarus. I was assured and believed, that there would be no such action.

With that in mind, we arranged a visit to Homiel for the widow and her family. We had lunch on the boat that was involved that day and in Belarusian style, they set out a place at the table including glass of vodka, for the departed. On reflection I recall the representative from the Ministry of Transport trying to tell us the truth. But we were all so engaged with ensuring the widow would not find out what really happened.

I recall with absolute clarity when the world turned upside down for me. On the last day, the widow and her brother produced a legal document. They were going to sue the Republic of Belarus. They had assured me that the visit was entirely to help them cope with the death of Iain. I had no idea at all that there was another agenda. We had played into this by not being honest as to how they died. The Belarusian Government agreed to pay compensation covering all educational fees for the two children. The widow swiftly remarried and relocated to South Africa.

The effect on me was immense. Even my parents had a visit from the Lord Provost telling them not to talk to me about any of it. There was panic in the air and I, as acknowledged truth teller was a danger to them.

The pressure on me to lie is what caused my PTSD.