To Life, L’Chaim

Lockdown was something we could never have imagined happening to the world. The measures that were put in place by Boris Johnson represented some of the most far-reaching curbs on personal freedom ever introduced in UK peacetime.

During lockdown people felt trapped. I said on the first podcast that lockdown didn’t bother me. I had already been locked down in a different way, in a mental hospital for over 7 months; incarcerated as I put it. Not very pc I know, but that’s what it was to me. And therefore, as I said, lockdown was a walk in the park.

I wanted people to bear a thought for those whose personal freedom, along with their rights, are removed against their will everyday, by being sectioned under the mental health act in acute mental units all around the UK. That is what feeling trapped is and that was how I felt.

Lockdown was not imprisonment, we all still had our basic human rights in place, it was about staying at home to protect the NHS and save lives and that is what (most!) people did.

Then I reflected on comments I had made about my sectioning and my mind jumped back to the 1980’s and I had to pull myself up sharp.

Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy to Lebanon, sent to negotiate the release of 4 hostages was himself kidnapped, kept captive for 1,763 days, nearly 5 years, most of which were in solitary confinement, for 23 hours, 50 minutes a day. So in comparison my incarceration was a walk in the park.

But comparing my experience to Terry Waite’s is like comparing one person’s mental health with another and you can’t do it and more to the point, you shouldn’t do it. We all suffer in different ways and that suffering is personal to each and every one of us.

In the cold light of day, I know Terry Waite lived an unimaginable hell far worse than anything I went through, but if anyone had told me to think about Terry Waite during my darkest hours locked up in my NHS ward, I would have told them, being blunt, I couldn’t care a less. Being told there are people suffering more than you is one of the many comments people make to those suffering mentally. Your brain can’t heal itself by thinking about someone worse off; if it was that simple, no one would need treatment for mental illness at all.

Hospitals are places to get treatment and hopefully get well, mental health hospitals are exactly the same but people are not open to admitting they are in one or have been in one. The podcast can dispel the myths around them but would you want to end up in one? I guarantee most people would say no. I would have said the same 3 years ago, thinking you had to be totally crazy to be admitted to one and had failed to will yourself better. That stereotyped view of mental health, held by many, would therefore have classed me as a crazy failure too.

My incarceration as I call it, was not by choice. The podcast discusses voluntary admissions and forced ones. I did not believe I should be in either hospital, private or NHS; at one point I did try to leave hospital but I was threatened with sectioning by my own consultant at the time, so through fear, I did not leave. Even though 11 weeks of admissions were classed as voluntary, 15 weeks were not – nearly 4 months with no say or control over my life.

I was forced to surrender to a treatment that I screamed out everyday was damaging me. I have asked so many times why not one professional listened? But a wise man told me, ‘Emma you cannot teach the blind to see’. But these were professionals – consultants and doctors, experts in psychiatry, over 15 of them and that does not include all the more junior professionals I met along the way. They can’t have been blind, they had qualifications and experience in mental health, which surely makes them see, but they didn’t listen either, so using the same analogy, they were deaf too. What hope did I have?

On the podcast I wanted to talk about my NHS hospital stay in more detail but I was mindful of our listeners. I share these podcasts on many mental health forums with people who may end up in one, as sadly there is nowhere else for them to go.

I also struggle at times to verbalise my experiences, (writing them is much easier and I will do so in another blog), mindful of my own fragility when recounting what happened. It was hell, my own personal hell, there is no other way to describe it, but in the end you have to succumb to the inevitable.

We do talk about both the private and NHS sectors in the podcast but you can’t make direct comparisons with hospitals and that is why we avoided talking about my experiences in the NHS further.

A few people have commented that by talking about our private hospital admissions, people will think we are part of a privileged section of society who can afford that level of care. This blog is not a political platform but we want to make clear that private health insurance could be a choice for millions of people. A year’s cover is still less than what people spend on wine, eating out, finance on a new car or a summer holiday abroad. If you have money to spend on these that is your choice and you are not judged for it and so is the choice to invest in private health insurance, you should not be judged for that either and by utilising private health care, it helps to free up treatment on the NHS for more people. The podcast must be listened to with all the above in mind.

With support from listeners, we aim to eventually offer free professional therapy to help those who are stuck in the NHS system and struggling to even get their first foot on the ladder of any form of mental health treatment.

But I have to accept, and I have been told to accept, I won’t be able to help everybody; that’s the brutality of life – and that brings to mind Frank Sinatra’s That’s Life, from the soundtrack of the Joaquin Phoenix film Joker, a singer who described himself as ‘an 18-carat manic depressive’.

In the words of Sinatra, I have picked myself up and got back in the race but many won’t be so lucky. The last line in the song ‘I’m gonna roll myself up in a big ball and die’ could have been the other option. I got help in the end but sadly with mental health that’s what people end up doing, accepting the inevitable and giving us.

So from Sinatra’s ‘That’ Life’ to Topol’s ‘To Life’ (L’Chaim) from Fiddler on the Roof, a play I saw pre lockdown. Just one different word and life can take on a completely new meaning and direction as the lyrics say ‘Be happy! Be healthy! Long life!’

And it’s the same with mental health. It only takes one slightly different approach, to guide a person along a slightly different road to get them the help they so desperately need, and by doing so change the meaning and direction of their life for the better.