15 minutes of grace…

I listened to this today, and it made me cry.

There was a story told by a woman who returned to the mental hospital secure ward where she had been incarcerated years before. The building was being demolished and she was there to take photographs. But walking into the building she could hear the noises of people shouting and screaming, and she could remember feeling so dreadful whilst she was there that she broke both arms by smashing them into the wall in the hope that they would have to take her somewhere else. She cried as she remembered the dead butterflies she saw on the floor of the empty ward, and could only bring herself to take photographs with all the heavy locked doors wide open.

But there were also lots of other stories of people who found their own healing- their own recovery.

It is 15 minutes long, but full of beauty. Go on, have a listen.

Square world…

I went for a meeting today in a posh new hospital. Everything squeaked as if in disapproval of my polluting presence.

I was there to chair a meeting about one of the patients, who had been transferred there recently to receive more specialist care. She had previously spent most of the last 40 years of her life as a resident of the local psychiatric hospital. Things went wrong after the death of her husband, and she somehow lost herself in the grief of it all. The whole range of psychiatric science was rolled out for her benefit – drugs that greyed her vision, Electric Shock Therapy that blew holes in her memory then finally psycho surgery in an attempt to cut grief out of her brain with a scalpel.

And here she remains – toothless, but given to scratching. Occasionally abusive but still with sense of humour intact.

She used to be a worker, a wife, a mother. She used to go on picnics and loved to dance. She enjoyed holidays and gossiped with her friends about the comings and goings of the village.

But that was 40 years ago.

Today we met to discuss her future care – a likely move to a specialist nursing home, and the legal issues around that given her lack of capacity to understand or to give consent.

But in the middle of this, she looked at the ceiling and said;

I hate those squares. Everything is square in here. Put me outside next to the beech hedge. Just put me outside.

And I looked out at the brown beech hedge, with dry leaves still rattling on the close cropped branches.

Through the square window.

And I wanted to wheel her out there, and sit her under the winter sky, wind waving her long grey hair in a curve of protest against all those bloody awful squares.

Life is precious…

I did some real social work the other day.

It has been a rarity of late- mostly I just go to meetings. But on this day I was the duty mental health officer for Argyll, and was called into the Psychiatric Hospital to interview someone in order to decide whether to grant consent for their detention in hospital under our Mental Health Act.

For obvious reasons I will reveal no details, but suffice it to say that the person I then spent the next few hours speaking to and about was living in the shadow of a terrible bereavement and had decided to take their own life. In many ways these kinds of conversations are run of the mill to me- I have been having them for 20 years. But each and every one of them is real in a way that most other conversations are not.

Despite this person’s lack of initial success in bringing about their death, they were in no way convinced that life was worth giving another try. In fact they were determined to leave the ward at the first opportunity, and to go on hunger strike until then.

My role in this process is a legal one- in that I have all sorts of legal obligations and duties- but it is also a very human one. And in many of these conversations I have found myself praying as I searched for ways of connecting- ways of opening up some kind of bridge over which we can travel together.

And in the mess of it all, in the shabby soon-to-be-demolished psychiatric ward, there can be these transcendent moments.

I can not easily describe how or why they happen, unless I use these words-

Grace will fall

On these broken places

Strength may fail

But weakness

May become our beginning

Hope may have been crucified

But the story is not yet over

The tomb now lies empty

But none of these words can be spoken.

It would be unprofessional. It would be patronising and would lack respect. The words would also not be believed.

But there was a moment when the person challenged me to give a reason why their decision to die was not a valid one- why this choice was one that people like me would use the force of law to declare invalid.

I could of talked about the nature of mental illness, and how depression steals our joy, then our energy, then our colour, then our light, then our reason, and finally all of our hope- but how also these things are temporary, and may yet return.

I could have discussed too the effect that such a choice has on those we leave behind. The generation who are condemned to years of guilt and pain in the wake of such an aggressive, final act.

Or I could have discussed my qualifications, legal obligations and the nature of mental health law (which I did a little- it is part of what I am obliged to do.)

But after the question was asked of me, I was silent for a while. And we stared at one another.

And into the silence I heard myself saying

Because life is just so precious.

And because you too are precious.

And for a while the air crackled with the Spirit.

I hope this time in a broken old hospital ward is a turning point, and a little more light is let in. We may never meet again.