LISTENING TO THE SILENCES

 

CHAPTER 7 PAGE 2

However, going back to the early days of 1980, which is where my narrative had taken me, the room had more of the feel of a furniture showroom, so uninspired and cluttered it was. That was also the general perception of the house, for at that time, in truth, I still had no specific direction, no particular goal. Overcoming the hollowness left by the events that had caused me to retire from work, and still somewhat disturbed by the culmination of the happenings of the previous nine months, I see myself, in retrospect, rather like Mole in Wind in the Willows, as he emerges from his deep winter sleep, blinking at the sun, wary of predators and getting his bearings afresh. Just as Moley had Ratty to 'put some wind in his sails', to buoy him up and show him that there was a huge, undiscovered world, albeit fraught with unimagined dangers, but with exciting new experiences and such interesting new friends - just as Moley had all of that, I had - what? I had a new world, the existence of which, in reality, I had never truly sat down and considered as actuality; neither had I thought of the consequences of acknowledging its very existence. I had the parallel, interweaving world of the 'spirit' (Capital 'S' or lower case, you choose yourself, for you have to choose yourself, I can only tell you of my own experiences and derived beliefs and practices).

I can only write in the language and context of the contact that I was experiencing, namely the Christian one, but fortunately not the one of entrenched 'theology'. No, it was to be very 'hands on', in more ways than one. How, though, can one enter into something, ask for light if one doesn't know that one is blind - blind to so much that is possible once one's 'eyes' of intellect, knowledge and experience are opened? Thus, not knowing that I was blind, I had not stood by the roadside like Bartimeus of old and shouted out loudly "Son of David, help me, have mercy on me". Nor was I struck blind like Saul on the road to Damascus, only to see truly when his vision was restored.

Now, I had actually been on that self same road to Damascus - it seems a lifetime ago - in 1946. With the advent of peace, the Navy was able to resume many of its traditional peacetime practices, and one of these was to lay on transport and visits to whatever was worth seeing, wherever the ship visited. Thus it was that I had been driven along the Grande Corniche road in the South of France, visited the perfume distilleries at Grasse, and Monte Carlo with its palace and casino. When the Fleet was at Naples, I had been to Pompeii; when at Nauplia in Greece, I had seen many antiquities; when in Cyprus for the ship's boilers to be cleaned, I had 'holidayed' under canvas near Famagusta and in the Troodos mountains, and had fished all night in his boat with a local fisherman; later I had swum in the crystal waters off beautiful Skiathos. So what was I doing on the road to Damascus? Well this time we had tied up in Beirut, principally for oil, but there was also time ashore. Time to see such a jewel of a city; untouched by war, and certainly not aware then of its ultimate devastation during the internecine wars fought around it and along its sweeping boulevards. And so it was that I (who "didn't smoke, drink or go out with dirty women", much to the disgust and total incomprehension of Scouse 'Spud' Murphy, whom I had encountered in a minesweeper on the Clyde) opted for the 'culture' and exploration, and found myself with several mates of similar persuasion in the back of an open truck as we creaked our way inland towards the Beka Valley and ancient Baalbek (or Heliopolis if you prefer the Greek). The road over the Shu'uff mountains was very hairpin-bendy, and very hair-raising in a truck with bald tyres and a body that indisputably had a detached life of its own, as the tailboard hung over a precipitous drop, while we edged and reversed, edged and reversed around any one of the many hair-pins. Up through the clouds, past gangs of men and women breaking stones and restoring parts of the road itself; then over the summit of the pass and the sight below of a road that seemed to vanish as a thread into the floor of the valley beneath. Unforgettable, as with so many other sights along the way - moving walls of straw that turned out to have camels inside them; people harvesting and threshing in ways that were timeless and so much more. But then, there it was, totally insignificant and unexpected, but awesome in its recollection, a simple signpost with the one word Damascus>… and in a moment we had passed. The day has many recollections, of Baalbek itself, but especially of friends who were killed at Corfu shortly afterwards - but no, I didn't experience blindness and revelation.

I didn't experience them in 1946, nor yet as 1979 changed to 1980, where I am in my story. Yes, my story. Sometimes when I stop and read what I have written in total, I spend a lot of time reflecting on why I am writing, for whom, and wondering whether I am achieving what I set out to do. Remember, I set out to inform and help and encourage individuals who are suffering in their minds; who cannot cope with intruding voices and presences; who cannot get anyone, lay or professional, to comprehend or believe what it is they are trying to convey; who suffer the indignity - yes, shout it loud, the indignity of constant disbelief; of being treated as a 'syndrome'; of having to submit without choice or understanding to mind altering drugs and 'therapies'. Partially isolated in my tranquil setting, it can be so easy to lose sight of you, or you who are trying to cope and give support to someone who is so difficult to understand and live with, someone whom you loved, still love so dearly, but who is not the same person you once knew. Sometimes as I write, I wonder whether my own reminiscences get in the way of my intention. Part of the reason, an almost instinctive ploy, is that reminiscing helps me to cope with the release of so much that is/was personally painful. If I can show to myself that so much of my life so far, the greatest part indeed, has been happy, formative and positive; that my personal distress and disasters had a cause and eventually a solution; if I can show this to you, then maybe you will derive comfort from the thought that there is a way through your own particular morass, if you can find the right guide or means of support. Acknowledging, however, that you may have to find the courage to go it alone. For sometimes it is necessary to reclaim an identity from the amorphous categorisations and identity obliterating processes in which you find yourself.

More, and more, and more, life and technology are conspiring to obliterate the individual. It is the information age, we are told. Before long I am sure, people will be desperately seeking the age of the 'person', a living, breathing, walking human, not a web page, totally anonymous, without an identifiable author, devoid of human emotion and contact (except perhaps something 'interactive' and self-degrading). Returning to a point that I was trying to make in an earlier section - I was trying to illustrate how the world of academic, and particularly psychiatric, research is far removed from the individual. No test yet devised can equate the mental distress and problems of one person with those of another individual; nothing can harmonise symptoms and reactions sufficiently to use averaged results for the treatment of all, no matter how strongly it is believed to be so.

Yet here is the statistical 'you'. Another tea break, and switch on 'Westminster' on TV, and what have we got? Mental health questions. Health Minister - "One in four people in the country will develop a mental health problem". What a prospect - and here is the point that I have tried to make in sketch outline, and to which I shall return in detail after I have completed the narration of my own story, - here is the point: I can guarantee that many of the so called mental health problems will have resulted from people being undermined and submerged by all the consequences of modern living - all the man-made and natural influences that I have touched upon, plus stupid diet and lifestyle; the very panic of trying to keep pace with all the 'must have', 'must do' compulsions that skilful marketing ploys thrust at one. Just take, for instance, computing - bigger, better, faster, more memory, this and that software, outmoded today, faster tomorrow. Must have it, must have it; and the kids have to keep up for school (if they aren't already mind-blown, overweight and asthmatic from the intensity of computer games and a computer in the bed-room), and they want the latest so they can have street-cred, school-cred. How my heart bleeds for you. If you haven't already fallen victim to the system, you had better take hold of your life or you will become the one in four who does end up as a mental health statistic!

But what chance does the poor, overworked G.P. have to help you as an individual? (He, possibly, is already a mental health statistic himself!). He has six or so minutes to analyse and probably prescribe - are you anxious, depressed, how's your sex-life -good indicator (or maybe the media have led you to believe that you must have bells and whistles, multi-orgasms and earth movement every time you perform, and maybe you feel inadequate)? Get your head around all that and try to describe it lucidly, then listen to what he tells you about the side effects of the drugs that you are going to take - six minutes - it would take six bloody minutes alone to read out and explain all the side effects of some of today's 'designer' drugs!

But you are at the far end of the chain that began with the original research - harking back to my 'second opinion' interview with Big Wheel, I sometimes wonder whether the reason that he didn't sit during the time that I was with him was that he would not have been able to see me because of the stacks of books ranged around his desk. If the length of time allocated to me is a guide, one wonders how much of the endless research that he has published is based upon direct human contact. I have a very good friend who has a son who is a professor in earth sciences, with many responsibilities world wide for projects initiated or funded by government or international bodies. Bolivia, Bangladesh, Mexico or Marakesh - the postcards arrive - from projects being advised, post-graduate students being supervised. Then there is this advisory body or that conference to attend - (while his mother frets about the effects upon his health that she can observe). He is, in fact, an expert in his field, and is doing a first-rate and very worthwhile job. Yet as he clocks up enormous numbers of air-miles, I am left to wonder in what manner, and from how many levels removed, does he have an impact upon my cretinous dwarf in Bangladesh, who only needed a bit of iodine in his diet. Or on the life of the riverside fisherman, whose fishery and livelihood are being destroyed so that some international conglomerate can build a dam to make electricity for the purpose of smelting aluminium, neither of which will benefit the fisherman (nor will the profit, that belongs to the shareholders). The aluminium will, of course, go to make soft-drink cans to create more health problems in the 'civilised' world! (My friend's son is, in fact, involved with many fundamental and valuable projects, and I don't want the hyperbole of my argument to detract from that.)

Nevertheless, my point is still this: you are, or the one you care for is, the individual at the end of the chain. A unique individual. How can anyone study, advise, prescribe unless that individuality is seen and acknowledged at every stage? But who can allocate time in the hectic world of national health, and the often under funded, under-resourced world of mental health, to cater for the needs of the individual? Obviously I am in no position to prescribe for you - wouldn't dare, anyway - but I can continue to do what I have been doing up to now and tell you what happened to me, and how I coped and developed a completely new life, and maybe I can help you to create your own coping strategy.

Possibly the greatest help that I was given came from a family. Not my immediate family; my brother had his own work and family to attend to, while my daughter was developing a career of her own at UMIST in Manchester. So what family? Whether you have a religion or not, it is profitable to look at the brilliant concepts involved in the origins of the Christian one. A family - the Holy Family - so called. A family with which anyone, no matter what their own circumstances, could identify. In this rural area where people stand out as individuals, the concept and working of a family unity can be seen all the time - craftsman father being followed by son or daughter; mother closely involved with the 'family firm', contributing, supporting - and the same in farming. An old-fashioned way of life maybe, but an effective one, and seemingly devoid of mental problems, if my observations are correct. A family that, in this case, my case, came and absorbed me. I, as I keep on saying, had not been looking for any sort of outcome or development. However, as I came to absorb and understand a little of what I was experiencing, and what was opening up to me, the realisation and understanding of some of my personal 'revelations' within the tormenting time around Christmas, began to open my eyes. I am writing with the benefit of more than twenty years' subsequent experience, and the 'smoothing out' of my lack of immediate acceptance and collaboration - itself the product of a wariness that had been derived from those same Christmas experiences. I laugh sometimes at recollections of my own rejections of what I saw as intrusions, interference; but as the further realisation dawned at the time, and I accepted what was on offer, life took on a new meaning as I found help and support within a family that I never knew that I had. Just, as I shall relate in a little while, I found in Scotland a human family that I hadn't known existed, and which was to absorb me and make me part of itself.

 

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