by Alex Russon
Alex Russon lives with his family in the Howe of the Mearns, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. A Christian, Alex has long been involved with voluntary work connected with his church. He also works in financial services and if he gets the time he plays golf. He is the author of ‘The Weight’ a book about a church football team, St. Mary’s FC.
By Alex Russon
Over the Christmas period I spent an afternoon with David, a friend of mine. We met six years ago when I was volunteering at a hostel for recovering drug and alcohol addicts and while he’s long since departed from there, we continue to meet regularly. He refers to me as a mentor but I dropped that label from the beginning, it suggested a hierarchical arrangement where David was subservient to my greater knowledge and that wasn’t how I viewed our relationship. In truth, he’s assisted me in my recovery every bit as much as he may claim I’ve assisted him, but in a less obvious way, without fanfare. David has inspired me, without him ever realising, I’ve tried to convey that to him but the mental health condition he endures appears to prevent him from grasping such praise. That said. I shall continue encouraging him in this way on the off chance that the odd penny will drop. He continues to struggle with alcohol recovery, as I do, but the foremost issue in his life is the psychological damage he’s suffered and continues to suffer.
David’s forty years old and lives in shared accommodation within a large Victorian house within inner city Birmingham. He took the bus to meet me for lunch in town over Christmas and while we met at midday as planned, it wasn’t Greggs we wound up in but the Oleaster, a mental health unit based at the City Hospital. Let me explain.
We’d agreed to meet outside St Chads Church where he likes to pop in for a moment’s peace now and again, it’s a place I usually collect him from in my car but today I walked up to the doors and found him standing outside, speaking on his mobile phone. He looked distressed and handed me the phone as soon as I saw him. On the other end were the police, they’d learned from a fellow resident of his that he’d threatened suicide (yet again) before leaving the house and they’d called him just as I arrived. They confirmed to me that officers would soon be in attendance if I took him inside the church for a minute or two. The officers arrived, spoke patiently with David then invited me to speak with him while they phoned to arrange his reception at a nearby hospital. David was kneeling in prayer on the first row in front of the altar and when he sensed me approaching began to cry helplessly, whispering “ I can’t do this anymore”. I’d never seen him cry before, it was heart-breaking. A priest spent ten minutes with us then the police took him away, I agreed to drive up and meet him at the psychiatric unit and by the time we re-convened he was in distress believing himself to have been arrested. The last time he’d been in a police car he’d been arrested for throwing a telephone directory at a hostel manager leading to a two week prison sentence in Winson Green which had frightened the life out of him, as did the aftermath when he was released into the ‘wild’ to fend for himself and alighted at an ex-offenders guest house where drugs and alcohol were rife.
A doctor was called out to assess David and I was permitted to sit in, what I witnessed told me all I needed to know about why David finds himself where he does today. That’s not to lay blame at individuals within the health service or associated agencies, but until people like my friend are dealt with differently I simply can’t see his plight improving. To qualify my background a little here, I’ve been in similar shoes to David, assessed by a doctor and committed to psychiatric hospital for my own safety and with a history of alcohol abuse. That assessment and hospital stay was ten years or more ago but remains fresh in my memory.
The doctor was accompanied by a male psychiatric nurse and they sat opposite David and I. A couple of minutes into the conversation the doctor’s mobile rang and he answered it without excusing himself while David spoke, continuing his phone conversation for a short while then cutting it off. David continued where he’d left off, the guy’s phone rang again and once more he took the call. I was horrified, it flashed me back to when I felt as helpless as David and finally found a doctor who appeared to understand, someone I could trust, but who after one hour of apparent care, subsequently swatted me away like a fly, didn’t see me again and left me feeling worthless. Similarly David felt his life appeared unimportant and meaningless to others, this doctor’s dismissive attitude didn’t aid that self-esteem. Matters improved, the doctor listened, and after a while it was decided David was safe to leave under my supervision and we proceeded to that (late) lunch after all, David armed with three sleeping pills to carry him through until Monday when a CPN would meet with him to discuss next steps. We had lunch, he perked up, I drove him home and we agreed to meet a few days later which we indeed did, by which time the social care team had begun to arrange new accommodation for him since he felt uncomfortable living where he was…
…But he’s uncomfortable wherever he lives. I’ve known him in a dozen places now, never for long, his persecution complex bringing matters to a head with his inevitable departure to pastures new soon on the cards. These pastures aren’t new though, they’re the same fields just with different fencing surrounding them. David has been processed by a system for years and continues to be. Since I’ve known him he’s moved as follows; alcohol recovery hostel, supported living accommodation x 3, prison, ex-offenders guest house, supported living x 3 and soon to be x 4. Where does it end? How does it end? And what can I do, a well-intentioned but naïve, uneducated friend grappling in the dark for a light switch. He’s forty, two hundred miles from his two brothers, friendless, grossly overweight due in the main to comfort eating and inactivity, unemployed for ten years save two short bursts where he was used by kitchen-masters for free labour and most of all, he’s unloved.
David’s tale is a heartbreaker. Brought up in Cleveland during the eighties, he was a victim of physical and sexual abuse first from his mother and subsequently by two consecutive sets of foster parents. At the age of five he was found sitting in the road waiting for a car to hit him. Leaving school with no qualifications and estranged from all but his two brothers, he moved to Portsmouth for a fresh start, then Nottingham, until ‘settling’ in Birmingham eight years ago. The persecution complex clearly comes from the treatment he received as a child, consequently he trusts absolutely no-one, often saying as much. He has had countless self-harming episodes and is well known to the A&E departments of local hospitals. Each time it’s either cutting his arms (never deep enough to do lasting damage) or overdosing on tablets (never more than enough to ensure recovery). Up until now I’ve viewed each of these episodes as a cry for attention but the latest experience has me apprehensive about the next ‘attempt’. I worry that he’ll be more bold or make a tragic mistake. He’s been patched up and sent back out to the frontline so many times that surely a different approach needs to be taken. How about somebody investing time in him, getting alongside him, putting a programme of rehabilitation together but following that up with responsible custodianship? When he moves a step forward instead of capitalising on it, he moves two steps back. I liken him to a child learning how to stand. Standing is not the end of the matter, they need to be encouraged to take a step, then further steps, to toddle then walk then run. David manages to hoist himself on to his feet but when he reaches out a hand for support it’s gone, so he sits down again and regresses.
Who’s responsible for taking charge of the situation? Well David needs to invest in himself fully for sure and I’ll happily commit to his development, so that’s two of us. Now all we need is some guidance and leadership from ‘the authorities’ be that Social Services or whoever, someone who can suggest action that would bring David’s confidence on, his self-esteem up and give his life meaning and purpose. He’s got it in him, we just can’t establish a method of getting it out. Give us both a fighting chance, tell us where to go. His father left him, his mother abused him then left him so he can’t turn to them for help, it’s down to outside agencies to lead the way please, we’ll gratefully take any advice or leadership you’re prepared to offer. Until then David and people like him will just exist, apply sticking plaster, meander, dawdle and die. They’re special these people, unique, put on God’s earth for a purpose and filling up A&E wards isn’t one of them.
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