Our struggle with loneliness

In response to an increasing number of people arriving at Southwark Cathedral complaining of loneliness, the cathedral’s day chaplains asked Andrew Wilson to lead them in a group discussion on the problem. Here he shares his contribution to the meeting.

I based my contribution to the discussion around two books I had been reading in lockdown. By way of introduction I suggested that the experience of loneliness was universal, whether it be in the playground perhaps, or the workplace, or sadly even within the circle of family and friends. One commentator writes “ The experience of loneliness is as universal as hunger or thirst. Because It affects us more intimately we are less inclined to speak of it. But who has not known its gnawing ache?” Jesus himself shared in that anguish, as Gethsemane and Calvary lay bare. “Alone, and in silent tears,” he endured betrayal and stigma.

The two books I had read both explored the anatomy of loneliness. The one a novel long-listed for the Booker prize, Real Life by Brandon Taylor, a black, gay American writer, and the other The Shattering of Loneliness, by Dom Erik Varden, formerly the abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Saint Bernard in Leicestershire, and now returned to his native land, to become Bishop of Central Norway.

Of course this vulnerability and openness is costly and risky. Sometimes it seems too much of a risk, encouraging us to close in on ourselves. The loss of loved ones, betrayal in our relationships, abuse, can move us to distance ourselves, unable to bear more pain. For some it is historical and social stigma that forces that distance on us. Perhaps it is our gender, or race, or sexual orientation, or mental illness that in the eyes of others sets us beyond the pale. Poverty, mobility issues, deafness, or blindness, simply being a carer, with all the limitations and frustrations that entails, can exclude us from any sense of belonging. And now the pandemic lays isolation on us.

In his novel Brandon Taylor deals with the issues of solitude, sexuality and race. Wallace, the central character, is a black, gay biochemist, who builds a life-style based upon self-preservation. Reflecting on the racism he encounters in his university department, Wallace says to himself, “The most unfair part is that when you tell white people that something is racist they hold it up to the light, and try to discern if you are telling the truth. Racist or not. And they always trust their own judgement. They have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse.” But Wallace chooses to keep schtum. Most people who suffer stigmatization will identify with that. One of his colleagues tries to get closer, and comes up against the wall that Wallace has constructed against intimacy, and self-disclosure.

When he does begin to open up to Miller, his friend, he is still kidding himself. “I have sealed it all behind me. Because when you go to another place you don’t have to carry the past with you. You have to keep going, if you’re going to survive.” ( In 12-step terms this is called ‘doing a geographical’.)

In denying his reality Wallace risks losing any sort of real relationship. Finally, after powerful tussles, the relationship between the two of them culminates in a moment of physical aggression. Miller and Wallace both face their own personal demons, their denial and fear. Somehow this struggle unites them, and they begin to lay bare their past, sometimes with terrifying honesty. Finally Wallace decides to stay in the present, and not to flee reality any more. After their explosive encounter Miller decides to cook supper for them both, and as they eat, unable to battle with words any more, Wallace begins to see possibilities and hope, and thinks to himself: “This could be my life. Eating fried fish together in the middle of the night. This could be life together, each moment shared, passed back and forth between each other to alleviate the pressure, the awful pressure of having to hold onto time for oneself. This is perhaps what life is, the sharing of the responsibility of anchoring oneself in the world. People can take hold of each others hands and hold as tight as they can, they hold on to each other, and to themselves, and when they let go, they can, because the other person will not.”

This novel sums up for me so much of what loneliness does to us. What is it that creates possibilities for hope, renewal and wholeness in those who struggle with loneliness? Sometimes is it simply the fact of being with an other, (not necessarily with our mouths full of fried fish!), even if we are lost for words, too exhausted to talk. Simply being present. We underestimate the depth of what we offer simply by being there.

Dom Erik looks at the spiritual journey that all of us must take towards human wholeness and fulfilment, and he hints at the raw materials we will need, and the stopping off places that we will encounter, as we become aware of our vulnerability and longing. To take that journey, and answering to that longing will asks of us a readiness to be open to others, and to God. In his meditations on the breaking down of isolation Dom Erik begins to look at the resources people of faith can access. He urges us to make a habit of reflection — remembering God’s mercy, and the longing it awakens in us. Our second remembrance is a realisation of our own vulnerability and limitations. He recalls the cry of God in Eden to fallen humanity. “Remember that you are but dust.” But Bishop Erik sees this not as judgement, or a curse, but as the way forward into hope, planting our feet firmly in reality, and on the ground.

This acknowledgment of our own vulnerability should awaken in us our need and our compassion for others. A remembrance of our own suffering and hardship should inform and strengthen our own resolve to help others. Dom Erik says that “if we are divested of illusions, we will be both fragile and free.” Realizing our own common humanity and shared messy history turns our faces outwards, to accept that we need others.

Dom Erik assures us that we are not left to our own limited devices. God will provide! Those two mindful memories of God’s mercy, and our humble self-acceptance will empower us as we serve as listeners and soul-friends to those come to our door. We journey together. For Dom Erik his monastic community is the ‘tent of meeting’, and our own local communities will strengthen us and equip us. We are called to construct an increasingly inclusive community, a nourishing community.

Dom Erik remembers being haunted his in his childhood with the notion that if we try believe and try hard enough we ought to be able to make everything better. He comes to realize that it is only by accepting our powerlessness that others can grow. Before an addict is able to reach out for help and change it may need them to arrive at the lowest point in their life; to the place where they have lost everything, damaged everything, and the road runs out. This is often described as a Gethsemane experience, the necessary fall before their spiritual awakening. Addiction is just one face of our common human longing for fulfilment. It is this ‘longing’ that in Dom Erik’s words “defines the human condition.”
Varden points out the realism of the scene at that table in the inn at Emmaus, so vividly painted by Caravaggio in a canvas that rests in the National Gallery. “Here the pilgrims are men of a certain age, dishevelled and fragile looking, hardly daring to believe the vindication contained in Christ’s assertive blessing.”

For me this encapsulates the work we are called to as people come to our groups and drop-ins—unsure, searching for some sort of meaning, connection, fellowship. Jesus’ guests at that table haven’t made the connections, but at least they have invited and entertained his company. For Dom Erik, and for us, this is enough. Whatever longing for love and connection has people arriving at our doors we believe it bears the marks of at least a half-forgotten memory that we might be loveable, even perhaps even made in the image and likeness of God. We dare to hope.

‘Slightly Bonkers Jamie’

We present two reviews of a memoir by our chair Jamie Summers…

See shirtlyletters.com for how to get a copy

This is a well written coherent account of what it must be like to have been born with a silver spoon, suffered the slings and things of outrageous fortune, fallen heavily, recognised one’s own plight and, with belief, compiled the many memories to chronicle a ‘you couldn’t make it up’ succession of extraordinary events. The fact that it is done with clarity and honesty makes it compelling reading.

The memoir starts off with the horrific ordeal of slipping through the mental health net, even as a voluntary patient, and reads at this stage rather like a verbatim account outlining the events after they had happened. The logical, well argued in hindsight, rant against widespread chemical coshing by the seemingly non-sensical overstretched unconcerned authorities and the Catch-22 patients can find themselves so easily sucked into make for disturbing reading.

Yet with perseverance, and some broad ideas about faith, the author survives and goes back in time to explain the rarified world of inherited wealth into which he was born. He reflects on his, often idyllic, privileged upbringing telling of fascinating ancestral anecdotes up to the point of his arrival within the strange family dynamic. His evocations of the lifestyle alongside the rigours of an elite private education are most illuminating as is his devastation on the, at the time, unexplained suicide of his mother.

Persistent bolter behaviour by his philandering father can’t have helped much in the feelings department neither can a complete lack of emotional attachment between father and son; the matter seems to have been emotionally swept under the carpet of respectability as was so often the behaviour in days gone by.

Suffering in silence yet conforming to the norm he continued indulging in pastimes and pleasures; playing the game, at that stage of the performance, was considered the important thing in life and playing hard was admirable. To be seen to rebel and yet retain class conventionalism was indeed a tricky balancing act. Mostly manageable but when wrong, disastrously so.

Despite the increasing personal knockdowns; some hugely unfairly financial, some marital, many self-inflicted due to his regular cannabis consumption, the prose is never delusional and doesn’t sentimentalise the sheer unfairness of the experiences. The pain is described as are the fun times and it is these which seem to keep him going throughout the tribulations by which he is beset.

Sections of the memoir alternate between diary accounts of his travels, his musical tastes and his descents into the depths of mental trauma. This pendulum-like progress (?) keeps up a steady momentum eventually enabling him to overcome his illnesses by seeking solace within worship. The need to communicate his experiences and assist those less fortunate is now very much uppermost within his aim and set firmly in his sights. More descriptive travels (interesting destinations, now alas, mostly unrecognisable from his adventurous era) follow as does a gradual understanding of why he perceives he was put on the planet.

It is by meeting the charismatic Jean Vanier several times, followed by Holy Land wilderness travels, that the dilemma of life is further questioned. As the personal considerations get more profound and less diary-like, so the accommodation, lists of names and food price criticisms decrease and the internal journey of personal faith increases.

This is a book with both a beginning and a contemplative end that unfolds unexpectedly. It is told throughout with an honesty and conviction that is unflinching. One can only hope that, with further undoubtedly difficult forthcoming trials and tribulations, the author now has the wisdom to depend on his faith and resilience. Not only to retain his sanity but find true happiness and contentment. Given the therapeutic value of ‘telling it like it is’. I have a feeling there are more stories to come.

‘A pal of fifty years’

A number of chapters of Jamie Summers’ autobiography were particularly touching. For me, his pained admissions on and into Springfield Hospital in South London, where I have worked, stand out, as well as his time at Eton and the loss of his mother to suicide at such a young age.

His story reminds us what many of us will have felt from time to time about how a wealth of physical resources does not protect us from a poverty of mental and emotional ones. Jamie’s story strikes me so, as a boy and a man he was handed blessings in one hand and lemons in the other, and left to find his own right way through a maze of mind and mental healthcare that was, too often, not caring enough.

Lemons indeed. This book is their process. Jamie adds the sugar of his writing style and charm to the acid singe of his suffering to make something special: homemade lemonade.

Jonathan Iliff (first published in the newsletter of the Old Etonian Mental Health Society)

Finding myself sectioned

by Aisling Jago

newest addition 1
Photo of woman's hand holding a cigarette over an ashtray, with scrunched-up tissues next to it
Photo by Laura Casalini, licence: CC-BY-NC-SA

Editor’s note: We are so grateful to Aisling (not her real name) for providing us with the following unvarnished account of her experience of a mental health crisis.

“Are you sure about this?” he said, as I slid the white gold band adorned with a diamond from my ring finger, and passed it back to him across the café table.

“Yes, I’m sure.” Little did I know that in that moment, Pandora’s box had been well and truly ripped open, and goddamn it, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get it shut again.

It was an otherwise innocuous June day in an upmarket, pedestrian borough of South-West London, famed for its yummy mummies, posh smoothies, and chain restaurants.

However, despite the suburban setting, this small action was about to set the wheels in motion for what can only be described as complete and utter hell on earth. Charles Dickens’ Hard Times had nothing on the next few months of my life.

I remember I was dressed in my workout gear: I’d just left a class at my new gym, and had come to see him for this last, final, decisive action over a coffee.

Passing back the engagement ring in itself was such an easy thing to do. It wasn’t so very hard to call curtains on a life that had barely just begun. What I hadn’t bargained for was everything that came next.

We walked back towards the train station. He was on his way to a band practice: he was a pianist in a jazz band. I clutched his arm, but let him go as I took a different path towards my new apartment with two new housemates.

I woke with a pain running through my body, and sweat drenching my bedclothes. The severity of what had occurred was only just rearing its ugly head.

By this stage, I was beginning to behave a bit erratically. I was no longer sleeping in my bedroom, nuzzled in a small and compact townhouse with a view across neighbouring rose gardens and surfboards.

No, by now I’d migrated to the sofas. When one feels uneasy, it’s easier to sleep somewhere that doesn’t require the commitment of a bed. You can fall asleep as and when you wish: you don’t have to decide on a time to enter into oblivion.

“What are you doing here?” asked my puzzled yet drunk housemate as she entered the apartment, alongside her slightly sozzled friend. “Oh nothing, sorry, is this weird!?” After a brief chat about her ex-boyfriend in the kitchen, I slunk back to my bed, embarrassed and ashamed.

When I woke in the morning, the routine was exactly the same. Clip open the back door, walk down to sit near the jasmine plants, which were in full bloom at this stage, and light the first of many cigarettes.

Click. The lighter’s flint catches on the gas, and poof, the flame shoots upwards, like a signal or a genie in a bottle. This was just the beginning. Six months later, after two psych wards, and an ill-fated move to the Persian Gulf, I’d find myself sectioned.

The Cinderella service

Over the past few years, mental health has had much more attention in the national press than it used to, finally gaining some of the prominence it deserves. Initiatives such as the Heads Together campaign, run by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, are doing great work to make sure people across the country feel good in their day-to-day mental well-being. And other high profile celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax have also come forward to discuss their struggles with mental health.

In 2013 the government committed to achieving parity of esteem between physical and mental health. However, there is still a very long way to go, with mental health still losing out compared to other aspects of health in the NHS. In one study[1]Funding and staffing of NHS mental health providers: still waiting for parity, King’s Fund 2018., it was shown that funding for mental health trusts rose by 2.5 percent in 2016/17, much lower than the 6 per cent boost received by other acute areas of the NHS. In January 2019 the NHS Long Term Plan made a commitment that expenditure on mental health care will grow faster than the overall NHS budget. It needs to. At present it’s estimated that only about 40% of people with mental health conditions receive treatment. To increase that proportion to 70% by 2033/34 the NHS in England would need to more than double its mental health spending to around £27 billion[2]Securing the future: funding health and social care to the 2030s, IFS and The Health Foundation 2018..

Certainly, mental health remains a topic that leaves many curious: especially when it comes to being sectioned, where someone is forcibly detained under the 1983 Mental Health Act. What is it actually like to be sectioned? What’s it like when your mental health is deemed to be beyond what’s healthy and could potentially put your life, or even others, in danger? Well, this is a story of what it felt like when I was sectioned.

A sectioning essentially means when someone is forcibly detained under the 1983 Mental Health Act. In 2018, the Act was used over 50,000 times, which shows an increase of over 30 percent in the last ten years. Furthermore, over one in one hundred of us will develop a psychotic illness in our lives, and one in four of us will have some form of the mental health issue to combat.

Sectioning still carries a huge amount of stigma, despite the fact it can actually be a very useful turning point in the lives of many people – finally getting them to have the help that they’ve needed all along. The reality is, however, it’s very difficult to get someone sectioned under the law. By law, “detaining someone under the Mental Health Act because they are no longer able to make good decisions for themselves, and they pose a risk to those around them or to themselves, is the last resort”, reports Vice.

Getting sectioned

I grabbed my toothbrush, some clothes, underwear, my MacBook and a hairdryer and stuffed them into an overnight bag. They’d come for me! Two burly ambulance ex-servicemen and a psychiatrist were in the sitting room of my grandfather’s apartment, where I was staying.

A psychiatrist had come to see me earlier in the day and it was obvious that they thought I was manic. I think my proclivity for picking up knives and holding them to my arms had also contributed to the general atmosphere of panic and trauma in those around me. I still maintain that my sectioning occurred because of a very high-stress environment and my attempts at dealing with it, but again, that’s just my assessment of the situation.

Finally, they bundled me into the ambulance, and drove me to a hospital in the suburbs of a university town not so far away. I remember on my first evening I found being there, and out of my previous environment, somewhat relaxing. I lay down in the ‘recourse room’ – a pale green, airless room that looked like a children’s soft play room, with bean bags, soft chairs and mats on the floor like those you’d use for gym at school, and watched a movie – with little insight into how disturbing I’d find the whole experience further down the line.

It was January 11th, so I’d managed to hold it together, just about, through New Year. I had a favourite thing to say to my parents and family, that was: ‘You’ve ruined my life!’ and then I’d just scream it and repeat it over and over. I didn’t care if it was 3am on Christmas Eve and I’d gone into my parents’ room in our holiday cottage in Wales and shouted it, or whether they’d popped over for afternoon tea – I’d scream it then, too.

I’d also scream that I wanted to commit suicide. I didn’t care who was listening: I’d scream it. I even once went to a Bible Study at a family friend’s house in the village and walked in in floods of tears screaming that I wanted to end it all. Not very palatable for the three elderly women enjoying reading scripture on Gideon in Judges and trying to have a rich tea biscuit.

I’d been behaving a bit more erratically before the sectioning, but nothing completely out of character. I’d been smoking lots of cigarettes. On one occasion, I went back to a man’s house who I’d never met before and spent the afternoon drinking beer and smoking roll-ups. He was Polish and cooked me some sausages, bread, and onions as I told him that my family wanted to lock me up in a psychiatric ward. We listened to Lizzo’s ‘Boys’ and kissed.

On another occasion, and I’m not proud of this, I turned up at my parents’ house in a taxi, went in and started to smash things up. I picked up a knife in order to cut my own arms. I smashed bottles in the pantry: thick globules of tomato ketchup covering the floor. I smoked cigarettes inside their house (they’re non-smokers). I told them in text messages that I wanted to kill them for what they’d done to me. And what they’d done, in my mind, was completely and utterly ruin my life.

Earlier in the year, I’d come downstairs from my parents’ bedroom holding a Stanley knife to my wrist when some of their friends had come round for afternoon tea. They’d managed to calm me down, take the knife away, and make me have some chocolate cake and a cup of tea. I don’t think I ever really wanted to hurt myself, and I only ever did very superficially with a razor blade. I made some small cuts on my forearm and watched as the blood seeped through the small wounds. Each one had two distinct stripes as they’d been made with a leg razor. They stung for days afterward. Nothing dramatic: but I was trying to get a message out to my family: I ain’t happy with what’s going on, people.

What was it like in there?

Lorazepam. Aripriprazol. Zopiclone. Olanzapine. Lorazepam (again). Yep: an average day in the nuthouse. “You alright my love? Harry and Sally have gone now. You’ll have to chat with the apples and pears and Lisa. Lisa’s wearing pink gloves. That’s her.” That’s Katie: she talks in a strange way that mixed an old cockney and pop culture: a bit like Lily Allen mixed with Rodney from Only Fools and Horses.

First things first: the walks. I had my special walks that I’d take each day just to break up the time. Walk number one: perhaps at about 8am, or approximately 10am after the ‘morning meeting’ (more on that later). I’d get dressed, have my ‘meds’ – I’d be sharply awoken each morning at 8:30am by a nurse banging on my door and announcing: ‘Cathy, come for your meds’. Then I’d head out after my bowl of cornflakes and my first shower of the day (yes, there were potentially many showers in a day, just to get through the day).

I’d put on my snuggly bright red Hades jumper of lambswool, which proudly said ‘Joy Division’ across the front. Of course I didn’t tell anyone that ‘Joy Division’ were actually a cult pop-rock band whose frontman committed suicide, but instead tried to pull it off as a jovial sartorial choice.

Then I’d head out, coincidentally down the street where my mother lived as a student, and pass all the well-heeled students on their way to lectures. Pretty sure I came off as a student myself, in my white sneakers, and long black coat, I stuck in my iPhone headphones and headed down the hill. Once I reached Coop, I’d buy three things: a newspaper (because friends worked there and I was keen to see what they were up to); a packet of chewing gum (Wrigley’s peppermint); and a Costa coffee – usually a medium white Americano. After paying for them with the credit card I acquired in the Gulf, and attempting to appear as normal as possible, I’d then head all the way back up the leafy suburban street.

The area of town I was interned in was really rather pretty. But, as I said, it was very student-focussed. The houses were terraced and Victorian. Tasteful. If you walked past a residence, you’d often see a stand-up or grand piano in the front room; maybe some nice artwork on the Farrow and Ball-painted walls.

I’d arrive back at the top of the hill at the hospital and make my way back to the ward, which had a little black cat on the door that let you in. No ordinary door: a heavy, metal, door that you had to ring a doorbell in order to exit or enter. As well as this, each time you wanted to leave you’d have to ‘sign yourself out’ or ‘get signed out’ by a member of staff. This entailed someone signing in a booklet, to say what you were wearing, and where you were going, and how long you’d be. You also had to say if you were getting any smoking materials from your locker, as most people at the hospital appeared to smoke (I’d managed to simply stop by this time).

Activities! Oh, what a way to be made to feel like a woman old beyond her years. Knitting. Watching the television, maybe Bargain Hunt. Listen to the radio. Radio helps. Radio offers a window to the outside world. Lunch: same each day. Medication. Medication. More. More. Creative writing was a good outlet, but I found that sometimes I was so distressed I’d be literally writhing on the floor, and unable to focus on the writing tasks we’d been set. There was also an expressive dance class that I enjoyed frequenting: think Peep Show crossed with a psytrance night and you might be just about onto what it was like.

People’s stories about how they’ve ended up in here are very interesting. One woman, young, with bright, big, blue eyes and an inquisitive face (she asked me about myself – why I was there / what was wrong with me) said that she’d taken an overdose when her son was just 12 weeks old. She didn’t have post-natal depression, but things had fallen apart for her when her partner wouldn’t support her and her son meaning she subsequently lost her home and her job working in human recourses. Another had attempted to kill herself by slicing her own arm. She was constantly in pain and asking for painkillers from the nurses.

One woman had schizophrenia and always walked around talking to herself, saying “she said this, she said that, they told me this, they told me that” etc etc. She had bright pink hair, and tattoos all over her body, including one that read ‘cunt’ right across her back. One day, she disappeared, only to return to the ward a few days afterward.

There were also patients who seemed quite normal. One, who kept getting mistaken for a nurse (this happened to me regularly, too), said she’d been sectioned now over a series of 23 years. She would get better, and then she’d somehow be forced back to the wards. Another had a hard, pinched face, and she’d stalk the corridors with her headphones in, constantly listening to music. She loved music so much ran her own radio show, I found out. She’d also dropped out of a philosophy degree, never graduating.

Then, there were the pure nutty ones. The ones who you couldn’t have a conversation with, the ones who were so angry they screamed and shouted non-stop, the ones who talked about God a lot (many of them talked about God). Another woman kept herself wrapped in a blanket the entire time, which she used to cover her head, and only dashed out of her room occasionally to go to the toilet. She never showered. Rather darkly, on regular occasions, a whole group of nurses would gather outside her bedroom, with blue gloves on their hands, and I knew what they were doing. They were going to forcibly inject her with her medication as she refused to take it.

A lot of people wonder what it’s like in a psych ward. Let me tell you this: there isn’t that much to do and the day has to be meticulously spread out and broken up, I guess a bit like if you’re in prison.

The chaplain

How to explain the raw, deathly, painful, jagged punch of grief that cuts through you like a knife? How to capture that feeling of genuinely wanting to die at what’s been lost, and the sweat-inducing, writhing feelings of regret, of pain, of suffering that shoot through you like a knife cuts through butter. Like molten lava is being poured down your spinal chord. I’m sure others on the planet will have felt the same levels of pain and suffering and loss, but when you’re experiencing it, it’s as if you’re the only one to ever suffer as much. You can’t comprehend how someone else could ever have felt as bad and sad as you do at that exact moment.

At my lowest points, I reached out to the Psalms for comfort. Out of everything, Psalm 27, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, he lays me down in fields of green’ – that’s the only thing that could console me and make me feel whole again. Other psalms – which all seem to deal with loss and the hope given by Jesus Christ, also consoled me.

Alongside reading these in the Bible, I also had weekly meetings with the hospital chaplain, who comforted me in my loss, and explained to me that she couldn’t understand how bad I was feeling, and how it must be to lose so much at the age of just 30, but she said that, like Job, I’d get everything back – but more than I could have dreamed.

The chaplain was a kindly, loving, and matriarchal figure, who offered me great comfort each time we met. She had a snappy dress sense, often wearing rich reds and purples, which were interlaced with a great hairstyle and a thoughtful way of speaking. Whenever she saw me, she lifted up my spirits.

Job, of course, went through it. Man, he went through it – but he also came back from it. For him, just when he thought it couldn’t get worse, it got a bit worse. However, all Job said was – the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. In other words, why accept it when the Lord gives gifts, but why then abandon the Lord when he takes away those good gifts?

Psych ward, Gulf style

This wasn’t my first rodeo, however. I’d actually experienced not only a mental health hospital in London (for a two-night stay at my own volition), but also a hospital in the Persian Gulf that I’d admitted myself to voluntarily, where a group of young women were being kept. I was there for five nights all in all. It all happens so quickly. Before you know where you are, you’re being stripped and electrodes are being placed on your breasts and legs. One strikingly intelligent young woman really caught my attention. Among some other really profound things, she told me: “This is my holiday camp!”

A particular feature of life on the psych ward in the Gulf was smoking. But this time – I was involved. Yep – I enjoyed the smoking. I relished the smoking. I’d sit in the smoking room with a rather obese woman whose son was a famous singer, but who had sadly been killed in a car crash, and it had sent her somewhat crazy. She’d spark up, wearing her hijab, and thick-rimmed spectacles, and l’d join her. Alongside her in the ward was my roommate, who was fat and always asking for more food. Alongside asking for more food, she’d request I give her massages, which I always politely refused to give her.

I moved to the Gulf for a job as a journalist. However, things didn’t quite go as they should have. It had only been about two or three weeks when events started to take a sour turn. I’d moved into a five-star hotel, which, on all accounts, was nice. I was earning a lot of cash which was equally nice, and spending it on room service each evening – whether salmon pasta; or pizza; or a veggie mezze platter. I was making friends, too.

One of my main friends was Alice, a slightly older woman in her early thirties. I knew her from my previous job in London. She had once worked with refugees in Africa, and now was changing her trajectory bunkered down making lots of money in the Gulf. It was a truth well accepted that this oil-rich state as a place was boring, but what it offered was high salaries, so people went all the same. In the summer months, for about 4 or 5 months of the year, you can’t even step outside it’s so hot – reaching approximately 50 degrees.

Other groups of good friends were a foppish culture journalist, a cool girl from Lebanon and Beirut who’d honed her edge living in Paris; and an Indian guy who’d lived there for most of his life with his parents. These were my crew, and I loved them for who they were. However, things didn’t last that long.

To begin with, I spent my evenings lying by the pool in the five star hotel. But something went awry, and at work I ended up going outside for smoking breaks – lots and lots of smoking breaks. Then, of course, Alice got involved and made me go and see a psychiatrist, who promptly said I needed to go to a psych ward.

And boom: there you have it. As I said, all of a sudden things become inverted. You move from up to down, left to right, forward to backward, colour to discolour, torsion to distortion. I’d entered the nether world of the psych ward.

At that point I was still totally obsessed with my failed engagement, and that was constantly at the front of my mind. I remember one man in the assessment centre saying: ‘You know, life continues’. However, I couldn’t understand how to continue it, if that makes any sense at all. So, I was ushered into the nether regions of well-off Arab society. The part that us ex-pats weren’t supposed to see.


After release, I focussed on gardening with my dad, which taught me things like how to deadhead roses, how to prune, and what mulching means. I was completely ignorant of all these things before that, so it was a great experience to have the chance to learn more about these skills. Further, it was interesting to see what my father does for a living, and to follow in his footsteps for a while. On one occasion, I found a beautiful bird’s nest filled with gem-like bright blue eggs. Other duties included edging lawns, and scaling many ladders to remove deadheads from roses. It was mid-summer, so the Cotswolds landscape was lush and green.

Interestingly, this period also coincided with the first coronavirus lockdown. I lived with my grandfather in a retirement village, watched the daily coronavirus updates on the television, and drank copious amounts of sweet sherry. I also had to have weekly catch ups with the mental health teams, which, if I’m being honest, did help to break up the monotony, but also were very frustrating. I didn’t see any benefit from them, and found the whole process constrictive.

Since then, I’ve re-entered journalism, and am now working full-time and living in London. Despite not having exactly the job I’d like, it’s definitely good to be working again and to have that focus back. I’m renting an apartment in North London with two other young women, and we have a black and white cat for company. We also have a small garden, which we share regards tending duties, although, I have to say, I probably contribute the least to this! I suppose this is a little beacon of hope. What I’m trying to say is, getting sectioned isn’t the end of the road. There is light afterwards, and you can get things back on track again.

My life doesn’t compare to the halcyon days of my twenties, to the trips I used to take across the States with my now ex-fiancé, to tending the tomatoes in our shared garden to our lovely little flat, or to the hope that I used to hold for the future. I do feel like those youthful hopes and dreams are now, sadly, a thing of the past. But, I still hold out hope to move abroad again, but this time for a longer extended period of time, and to build a happy and productive life once again.

The only way to combat this whole situation is to do the things you love in life. Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep drawing. Keep seeing friends and enjoying. Life is a beautiful gift that needs to be celebrated. Things might have failed to work out how I’d have liked them to work out, for one reason or another, that even I’m not completely sure of. The cigarettes still make an appearance, but, there are times when it’s less now. Learning to love oneself and one’s life is key, and to be grateful for the small things.

Book review: Freed from Shame by Dawn Holmes

Freed From Shame book coverIn the April issue of ‘Christianity’ there was a book review of ‘Freed from Shame’ which gave Dawn Holmes’ work the same 4 stars as Justin Welby’s latest. Its subject matter was of particular interest to us at Being Alongside / APCMH subtitled as it was: ‘Addressing the stigma of mental illness in the church’. So I found a copy through a large online bookshop although one can also order it directly through the book’s own micro-site  or read it as en e-book.

It arrived speedily in a blue paper bag with additional promotional material, a nice touch possibly made easier by the self-published nature of the book. Some of you will know that BA / APCMH has been working on preparing a leaflet to encourage churches and their congregations to do more for the mentally afflicted. Well, this book echoes the ideas expressed in our drafts and expands them. Dawn, with help from Karen Todd of Simplicate, has produced a book that is easy to read, only 100 pages long all laid out creatively and clearly. It is aimed at anyone interested in mental health issues in the Church be they leaders, people with problems, their friends and relatives.

It comprises three sections … Part I ‘Understanding mental health’ deals with all the diagnoses people are given. Part II ‘Being understood’ contains the real-life stories of nearly 20 sufferers and Part III ‘Equipping the church’ gives practical advice to churches on how to help. To be honest I found Part І a little dry but that’s just my personal perspective and probably the information there will educate the layman – when in Part II we learn that Michelle was diagnosed with ‘Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder’ which used to be called ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ I wonder if these labels really help anyone – are we not just people?

The testimonies in Part II derive from Dawn’s survey questions. Each one moved me. I’ll share a few with you now – Michelle says, “… I just want you to walk with me, like Jesus does in the poem ‘Footprints in the Sand’.” Peter says the most important advice is to “listen properly – look behind the mask that a person puts on to protect themselves.” Heather pleads, “… don’t judge me … be practical but patient but above all loving.” Deborah, whose daughter has had traumatic teenage years says, “I believe it’s time churches did more to support people struggling with mental illness. Don’t let more people suffer alone, get hurt or misunderstood – it’s time for a change.” Amen to that.

Dawn’s practical suggestions in Part III include setting up drop-ins, quiet zones, prayer spaces and befriending sufferers on to one. I particularly liked one of her bullet-point charts which mirrored the ethos of our little charity, but were all taken from comments in her survey.

  • Be real.
  • Don’t look down on people, it could be you one day.
  • Listen, listen and listen some more.
  • Don’t push for more information than the person wants to give.
  • Keep information confidential.
  • Be respectful.
  • Love them like Jesus does.
  • Walk into services with the person and sit with them.
  • Show support rather than a “fix-it” approach.
  • Listen, pray and be a friend.
  • Don’t give up on the person.
  • Tell people it is OK not to be OK.
  • Be more accepting and less shocked.
  • Stop any gossip or negative comments about the person.

All in all an excellent publication, written with empathy and love. As churches, we need to step up to the plate and end the stigma and shame says Dawn. May God reveal His heart to you as you read this book and bring His hope, grace and peace to all.

Jamie Summers