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.

chasm

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.

Woman in storm3

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.

plant seeds

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.

Hope

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

ladder

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

scream-fear-brain

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.

drowning_in_trash_by_countrygirl957-d3jvyst

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.

woman-face-explosion-stone-art.jpg

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.

Downward2.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

Time is a River Without Banks.

I sensed already that no good would come of Ann, my boss, visiting Belarus. We were together in Belgium the week before at a conference. We were in Place des Martyrs before going to visit the chapel where the statue known as Our Lady of Aberdeen is situated, Ann would not take a card featuring the statue of Mary with an anchor presented to Brussels by Catholics of Aberdeen . At that point I just knew.

I was having counselling at the time with a wonderful nurse as the stress of my work was still affecting me. I remember telling her that felt in my guts that Ann should not go to Belarus.

The day it happened, I was called to the office of my CEO who said she and Iain another colleague were missing presumed drowned. They decided to send me over to Belarus immediately. It is a good job I had my passport in my desk. I headed for London to get a visa. I was contacted at this point by a wonderful detective from Grampian Police. He offered to come with me as he knew about repatriation of human remains. He was a friend of my Dad’s. We met at Gatwick and the whole adventure started.

The British Embassy in Minsk failed to meet us on arrival. Just to add to the general madness, France were playing Belarus in a World Cup qualifier. This meant there were no hotel rooms to be had. I bribed our way into a suite. Then I bribed a random driver to take us the next day to Homiel.

By this time. they had found what remained of Ann. She had been dragged into the propellers of a boat and was dismembered. Iain was dragged down after her so he drowned and was found further down the river. They had dredged the river and found some ten other corpses. We have no idea to this day who they were.

Before going into the mortuary, I asked them to tell me what I was going to see. I wanted to minimise any shock. In true Belarusian fashion they thought I meant I did not want to see their private parts. They placed embroidered doylies strategically on each corpse like Belarusian folk art fig leaves. Somehow their doing so helped me get through it. I was kicked in the back by a leg of one of the corpses on stone slabs. But most of all,it was the smell I can’t forget. There was a forest of bodies and no refrigeration.

We identified what remained of Ann by fragments of her hair and one eye. There was so little of her left. Iain was on a slab, bloated through having been in the river for so long. They waved his right hand in my face. They were trying to get my confirmation that I recognised his wedding ring. Belarusians wear their wedding rings on the right hand. The Detective stood behind me in case I passed out.

He was no wimp. He had worked on the Piper Alpha Disaster but he cried. I didn’t. All I could think of was the families waiting at home for the return of their loved ones. I wish I had cried. I was sowing the seeds of PTSD without knowing it.

We had a meeting with the Homiel Council and I sensed who was involved  that day. Detective Inspector Neil said he could see in my body language who I knew was partly responsible. Apparently I leaned slightly across the table towards this man. According to Neil I scared the living daylights out of him by that one simple movement. It goes to show how precarious the balance of power can be.

Neil was all for getting in the international undertakers Kenyons to take over. I started kicking him under the table as I could sense how important it was for the Belarusians to be involved as they felt deeply responsible. I whispered “let them do this”. I dismissed the largely useless representatives from the British Embassy and went with my gut feeling that we could do this ourselves in partnership with our trusted Belarusian friends.

We needed to find aluminium to line the crates that the coffins would be transported in. They took us to a watch factory who donated not only enough aluminium but also plaques for the coffins. The coffins were provided by Belarusian carpenters.

Neil got to know the Belarusian Militia over a very drunken lunch. They were worried that he was investigating them which he was not. He had small key rings of handcuffs which he handed to each Belarusian policeman. He asked me to translate “this is for your wife”. It was a clever way of using police humour to build trust. He then decided to phone my Dad back in Scotland. He said “your daughter is a gem”.

The only time I cried was I was translating the death certificates on an ancient Soviet computer which kept crashing. I wanted to find a better word for “raschlenenye” than “Dismemberment” to make it easier for Ann’s family. There is no other word.

Given I had chartered a planeload of Aberdonians to visit their project partners in Belarus, there were a lot of us in the City at the time.  I arranged a memorial service at the Orthodox Cathedral so we could all mark this shocking event. My one major memory of this was the arrival on the scene of the man from the watch factory. He was rather drunk but he lurched his way to the front of the cathedral and crossed himself. It was his day off, but he wanted to pay his respects. This is the spirit of Belarus. They cared and felt personally responsible for what happened. It was not their fault.

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Homiel Cathedral

Neil and I drove behind the refrigerated lorry. It was a hot summer. We had to make sure the lorry was cold enough. It meant stopping off every ten minutes or to check the temperature.

The Belavia plane was not big enough to cope with the crates so we sent them via Frankfurt on Lufthansa. I met before that with our Ambassador Sir John Everard in a car park. I just said “give me blank letter headed paper with your signature on them so I can fill in any details they require”. At the airport I felt my handbag was heavier than it should be and realised that a kitten had attached herself to it.

I was still under the illusion that this was all a tragic accident. It was only when I got back to Aberdeen that, after a visit to my home late at night by the very drunk Leader of the Council who was there that day, I was made aware of what really happened that day.

What traumatised me was not the horrific scenes but the hypocrisy and the cowardice of those who sought to hide the truth. It instilled in me a lifelong loathing of people who live according to these warped ‘values’. These are themes that will recur in future blogs, from talking about the aftermath of the accident up until more recent times and my experiences with certain parts of the NHS.

Certainly, my life was changed forever by the experiences around the events of that day. I bear the scars even now and the fact I am writing this as an inpatient in hospital on my mobile is testament to this. Time, as Chagall described in his work, is indeed a river without banks and I may never reach the shore.

F2EBD9E2-6FD1-4C37-9578-48B323E0B525The River Sozh, Homiel Region, scene of the accident

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