portrait of this blog's author - by Stephen Blackman 2008

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ok, so it has seemed like mental health week here at The Gap. And why not?

The British ‘care in the community’ policies have often commendably supported aspects of the patient’s rights movement from broader civil rights campaigns and encouraged the development of community care. [The Mental Health Act 1959, Mental Health Act 1983, Community Care act 1990 etc] But one can’t help wondering on occasion if it is for merely political and economic expediency and budgetary slash and burn of the NHS that such people end up on the streets and coming to see us of course. All of this means that many of the people using the Gap as a drop-in for food, warmth, shelter, washing, showers, toilet facilities, activities; art, music room, IT suite and housing referrals and general support are suffering a huge variety and range of various aspects of mental health.

The week has been stressful and we have been trying to accommodate a vast range of client need.

Jose is one such example and before you complain that I have infringed his human rights to have his picture taken, I asked him and he said it was OK –“ If you give me a copy of the picture.” [He has asked me every day since!]

This is Jose. He is quite lucid, not to say articulate, fluent in Spanish and often engaging to talk to if one spares him the time, does not appear to be violent and has recently been using the Gap. He needs feeding and though he chooses not to use the washing facilities we do have a tendency to not allow him to stay on site. He is brought drinks [hot or cold] and his meals and he eats then on the street. Prejudice? He seems to prefer this. And yes, OK so do we. Why? Jose has told one of our staff, the much-loved Miguel, that he suffers from Diogenes Syndrome. This caused me to look it up on’t t’Internet and it is best explained as follows: the adoption of a reclusive and squalid lifestyle, expressive of a hostile attitude to and rejection of the outside community. Sufferers often live in restricted spaces, hoard what observers might think of as rubbish and wear peculiar clothes. The syndrome is characterised by the refusal to accept all offers of help, rudeness, anti-societal behaviours and very poor levels of self-care. Interestingly sufferers of Diogenes Syndrome have often been previously very high-functioning and can be possessed of IQ’s in excess of the high 80’s and above.
Some staff are of the belief we should ‘Call the police! Call the police! Its disgusting!” but we have a more enlightened approach don’t we?Jose and I had a conversation on Monday about photography and he clearly has something of the artist’s vision as he looked at objects around him and we discussed aspects of form, colour, shape, juxtaposition and so on. He suggested to me he might be given a camera as “I see things differently you know?” I have seen things which you can only imagine” and I am working on that one.

The only SLIGHT snag, as you may have realised by now, is that Jose has the compulsive need to collect detritus.
He does this much as Pigpen in the Charlie Brown cartoons of Charles M Schultz appears to gather dirt and dust. It seems a process of osmosis is at work. One can watch him and see him rearrange things in his possession, you can even observe him going through the waste bins on the street but somehow he always seems to have accumulated more than one imagines possible.

At was at this stage we felt we had to take some kind of ameliorative action. If only to impress passers by and the long suffering neighbouring boutique owner next door who is after all trying to sell flimsy niceness to those with a predilection for pretty dresses, baubles, bangles and beads.

I leave the project to engage Jose in conversation about the stuff he has accumulated and having contacted the mental health team and the Elmore Team who have a duty of care towards him, I try in my best person centred way to engage. I presume from my therapeutic training; valuing, acceptance, conflict management and client attunement that much of what he has gathered must in some way be valuable to him.

“So Jose, all your stuff there is it in some way precious to you?”

Now, Jose gives me a somewhat quizzical look at this point as if trying to work out exactly which planet I may be from and retorts

“ No of course it fucking isn’t. It’s a load of old shit, isn’t it?!”

We make him a deal that he can come in tomorrow if he tidies up the collection which by now has reached the level that all his collection is housed in two of the largest Sainsbury’s trolleys overflowing with well, rubbish.

“No problem, it’ll be easy!” Jose responds.

It takes the following three hours for Jose to sort through the contents bit-by-bit, item-by-item, dog end, cup, and carrier bag by KFC box. So that actually he reduces the two trolleys full to the one. Half way through we bring him a cup of tea, the contents of which he decants into a beer bottle, he decants this into a Remy Martin bottle and pours it back, drains a couple of local coffee shop cardboards cups of their contents and yes, you guessed it, proceeds to sip the mixture as he works. We contact the City Refuse Service, the Anti fly-tipping Bureau, the County Refuse service and indeed Sainsbury’s to see if the wish to collect their trolleys, explaining that a mentally ill person has built up quite a collection of refuse and will they come and collect it. Interestingly the departments are extremely gifted at referring us round and round the system [system? Ha!] so that one is stuck in a never ending circle of phone calls that presumably would disappear up their own fundament if left off the hook but the experienced project worker knows when to hang-up, if not give up. It is collection day anyway and the trolley and several bulging bin bags later are all arrayed by the council refuse bins we normally put out.

So by close of business the front of the project is looking fairly presentable again and Jose disappears into the evening safe in the knowledge that he will be allowed in again tomorrow. Where does he sleep I hear you ask? Why he has his own flat or room. The Elmore Team inform us it is currently the subject of an order to re-house him. Why?
Because in Jose’s own words “It’s full of shit!”
“Its outrageous that anyone should have to live like that!”

“They need to sort it out, I can’t be expected to live in those conditions”

And you know what? He’s right. The fact that it is entirely of his own making is neither here no there as it is clearly a matter of Public Health and Safety as Jose seems keen to point out. So maybe he will sleep rough tonight but I doubt it. Probably just snuggle up on a bed of Tesco bags and several week old food boxes from the bins of Oxford.
They staff member who wanted the police called starts ‘making a book’ with us as to the state we will find the project in tomorrow. “You wait, he will have scattered the contents of all his bins back all over the front of the place again” presumably as some kind of defiant statement against our fascist restrictions.

I arrive the next day with trepidation and low and behold the front of the project looks FINE! Much the same as we left it and we start the day front of house ushering in the waiting hoards for breakfast and to start the day.

But wait…Team Leader has some bad news

The back garden is full of rubbish! Several bins of refuse have been scattered all over the garden, not only that but there is ample evidence that some has defecated all over the garden. In at least five different locations and ‘can someone lend a hand?’
We don our rubber gloves and ever the one to show willing that in my role I am not above unblocking the toilet (it usually requires a broom covered in bin bags. technical stuff!) or fixing a light bulb, re-booting the IT suite so that the porn links aren’t working anymore, etc etc. So we set about picking up all the rubbish, and I hold the bin bags as we shovel up the faecal matter from around the garden borders. What feels like several tons later we focus on removing the rest of the rubbish, card boxes, bags and paper and waste and a rather fetching umbrella covered in white polka dots dumped down by the back boiler room. This includes 12 foot lengths of used toilet paper and as the contents of the garden’s decorations are shovelled into the bin bags I am religiously holding open, it occurs to me that here I am on lovely sunny October morning shovelling shit!

Note: not you understand that I'm accusing Jose here. No, no. I wouldn’t make any such assumption, as we need evidence of any such act before we go around accusing anyone. We let the mental health team know he is currently barred from the project and that at present he is ‘plotted up’ on the steps of the architectural award winning carbuncle of the Oxford Said Business School building, part of the university, with his by now several bags of rubbish [he’s only been gone a couple of hours so hasn’t got into his stride yet.] The person from the mental health team says

“Oh dear that’s quite posh over there isn’t?”

I say well, I suppose you could call it that

“Well they won’t be happy about that will they?”

No, I dare say they wont

“Well, I’d better do something about that”

Within a couple of minutes two police officers are seen engaging Jose in conversation.
When I next take a look he has gone, no sign of him at all, not a trace, not a wrapper or a dog-end and we haven’t seen him since

Postscript: As I leave for some well earned annual leave, I take a look back at the building that is presently the Gap and there nestling in the drain at the foot of our drainpipe from the roof is a large milk carton, you know the sort plastic and the biggest container of milk Tescos can supply. Two litres or half a gallon! It is FULL of a curiously familiar yellow liquid!
No way, Jose!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Thursday 2nd October: Stephen phoned me from Prague to let me know that 'Lola' had died about 3.00pm - some 40 mins after she passed away....
He asked me to pop into 323 in Summertown to check things were OK and being dealt with etc.
I was happy to do so and yet surprised to find her still laid out in the ubiquitous & detested downstairs bed. I don't know why. I should have expected that really.

However it was good to be able to pay my respects and to see her so soon after she parted from this life. She looked at peace and a strange calm was in the room, indeed throughout the entire house. David, her last companion, asked me if he could read a poem there & then and in her presence and I of course agreed.
It was really rather moving to see her in repose and all the stresses and strains, the pain and troubles of the world gone from her face. I noticed a little ring upon her finger, her hand now relaxed and free from fretting. It felt somehow right for someone to read something at that moment. She, who I knew to be so interested in culture, art, film and always with a take on life guaranteed to challenge us and to give her unique take on the world around her and as she saw it.
I shall miss her.
Despite all the frustrations and challenges she presented, not least to her son Stephen, me and my wife Dawn saw many happy moments too in our time. She and Stephen gave us a Spanish Broom for our garden when we moved into this house........

I always enjoyed her visits to the Museum of Modern Art here in Oxford when I was working there, however challenging they might have been. She always made me think, reflect, get cross and at times laugh like a drain! She ran the University Film Society when it switched to the Museum that involved her in the film programme being run there with the Deputy Director, Marco Livingstone [authority on David Hockney and Pop Art and a dear friend who sadly I have lost touch with] may have been lost in their archives. He endured the wrath of her tongue also if a film chosen for the MOMA film programme did not suite her. They fell out and argued and we all forgave each other and laughed and moved on.

The happiest time I think we spent together was at the Playhouse Theatre in Oxford in 2001 when Catalina, her granddaughter, was in a performance of Peter Nichols' classic 'Day in The Death of Joe Egg' with Clive Owen & the lovely Victoria Hamilton and - we all went to the first performance and of course she was wonderful [accuse me of bias if you will but I am right in that that young woman is going places, has an emotional maturity beyond her years and is as a bright as a button and will be a light in the firmament of all who she chooses to work with or get to know]
We all enjoyed the performance and Lola seemed proud and happy to be with Stephen and Anne, Catalina, Dawn and myself.

That was a long time ago now and in later years as she slowly became bed ridden the fear of being left alone and the illness made her cruel and so angry at times so that I really could hardly bear to hear her vitriol especially when it was aimed at Stephen and his family. I said so, hopefully gently but assertively, on a couple of occasions and earlier this year tried again and asked her not to say anything so hurtful in my presence when it was clear I cared so much for her son. Indeed I am painfully aware that it was not only her nearest and dearest she singled out for this treatment. Any one of us could become the object of her anger and negative attentions, from the wonderful genius photographer Paddy Summerfield who lives but a few doors away to Helen Ganly the artist........to well, almost anyone in her circle or who crossed her path. Thusly I became, if temporarily, persona non grata for a while, lumped with the 'fascists', the grouping we were all assigned to if we did not comply, demur, concur or say the right thing at the right time.

Somehow of late I became accepted back into the house and the last times I saw her she rambled on to me about life, Spain, crows, Franco, girlhood at 6 years old in Catalunia, WC Fields, Salvador Dali, Truffaut, Pablo Casals, Berkeley, neighbours, rats, conspiracy theories, cats, the demise of Great Britain, asylum seekers, her carers being 'fascists' etc etc........but she never failingly forgot to ask after my children and my wife Dawn, especially as Lola knew that Dawn had her own battles with breast cancer.

I am glad I was able to say my 'cheerios'. As I say, I shall miss her.
So this is some week......I am minded to add a poem and as of late 'the blog which no-one reads' has been rather cluttered with rants and textbased ravings I feel the need to add some visuals.

However first things first and my dear friend Stephen 's mother 'Mutti", Maria Dolores Blackman, the extraordinary 'Lola' to most of us 'friends' that knew her, has passed away after the most extraordinary struggle; bed ridden for what seems like over ten years and ruling us all from her bed with her own unique perceptions and views upon us and the world around her. I am fortunate to be in touch with Stephen's equally wonderful father, Alan and he sent me this a reminder of a poet I did not know but who we had discussed and Alan minded to me that this below was one of his favourites. It seem aposite and timely and I hope in keeping with others' memorial to a truly unique individual


So to the elements return. Be free.
The life you sought in vain you now must part.
Your path lies over the dark syllabic sea,
May my grief be a star to your wandering heart

Those sweet roses you shall never find,
Already the time has come to re-embark,
Life must remain an undreamt dream in your mind.
My words are fingers groping in the dark.

May your memory in these words remain,
Like sea's sprung rhythms in the empty shell.
The wheel of fate and birth has turned again.
So to the elements return. Fare well.

For the seas you sail I know no chart.
May my love be a star to your wandering heart.

Patrick Bridgwater
Maria Dolores 'Lola' Blackman 1924 - 2008

Sunday, September 14, 2008

....where no star shines and no birds sing....
“…a non-stop waggling of the backside as he hands out, on a salver, sentence after sentence.... So what? One feels, reaching the end of the drama in a resounding box, where no star shines and no bird sings.
Dorothy Richardson on the writing of James [Henry?]

from the originator of ‘stream of consciousness’ writing – she preferred the term ‘interior monologues’ ] predating Jack of the perpetual pen........

It was only when she was alone and in the intervals of quiet reading that she came into possession of her hands. With others they oppressed her by their size and their lack of feminine expressiveness. No one could fall in love with such hands. Loving her, someone might come to tolerate them. They were utterly unlike Eve's plump, white, inflexible little palms. But they were her strength. They came between her and the world of women. They would be her companions until the end. They would wither. But the bones would not change. The bones would be laid, unchanged and wise, in her grave.
- from Dorothy Richardson 'Pilgrimage'

Sunday, August 17, 2008

So working in a drop in for the homeless can be stressful,
challenging and occasionally really quite fun. Today though I have a
some days just take the biscuit

Starting the day well at 8.30 organising about 45 people in for
breakfast. One of our quieter clients decided in the middle of the
kitchen, it is time to do his washing so immediately divests himself
of ALL his clothes and proceeds to put them all in the washing machine.

Some of the other younger clients take issue with this somewhat
laissez-faire attitude especially whilst eating their sausages,
boiled eggs and toast and start shouting at him telling him he's a
'nut-nut' and a 'effing looney'
I talk to the client minus his garments and gently suggest he may
care to wear something whilst doing his laundry but he declines my
offer stating he is really 'OK, Thank you' and he won't be long
By this time a busy dining area is full of screams and people
claiming it 'infringes their human rights' to have to face such a
spectacle whilst breaking their fast and such is the hullabaloo that
my Boss, Dawn, decides to bar them all and asks all of them [except
the naked person] to leave the premises, that the police have been
called etc............
We contact the mental health agencies who do indeed know the
aforementioned young man sans culottes and that after previously being sectioned
[136] under the mental health act smashed all the windows in his
mental hospital room and is asked to leave and the Consultant
Psychiatrist decides the easiest way to maintain this status quo is
to diagnose him as having nothing wrong with him at all. [Its called
'Care in The Community'] The Mental Health Nurse from the nearby Night
Shelter Surgery comes to talk to him and ascertains that she thinks
he is borderline schizophrenic and needs a quite place to assess his
needs. This must be done by calling the relevant police department,
who we call and they refuse to come out unless he poses a "threat to
other persons". This is not acceptable to Dawn, my boss, as we now have
a situation where all the usual clients (50+ of them) are milling
about on the street looking forward to having their lunch by now and
the young man who by now has all his clothes in the drier is
blissfully unaware of where everyone except the staff have gone but
seems quite happy [he is smiling...........a lot]
First a couple of Community Support Officers arrive and seem a tad non-plussed as to quite what to do [if anything]
The police eventually come and say there is really nothing they can do and that
they will not arrest him, detain him for assessment and indeed appear
reluctant to take any action at all. During which conversation the
once naked client has now packed his now dry clothes into a bin liner
and blissfully walks through the building passed us all having this enlightened chat and leaves the premises
wandering off down the street towards the town centre
So we let everyone else in apart from several youngsters whose behaviour has been supremely intolerant of somebody minus the clothing which surprises me as they always seem especially keen to get into each others.

At his point Dawn my Boss realises I have broken the security latch
on the office door and that clients could get in and attack
me at any second but it looks un-fixable to me. She leaves me in situ whilst we ruminate the possibility of getting a locksmith to let me out when a client pulls on the front access door and the handle comes off in his hand. Yeah definitely a locksmith!

Dawn by now showing signs of despair goes upstairs to 'use the staff facilities' only to return
stating she has 'fallen off the toilet' as the seat was loose and that she 'slid off' and 'ricocheted across the room into a wall' [her actual words]

It is at this point that the previously naked person decides to
reappear just as I am letting everyone back in for their lunch as he
is "really quite hungry" by now - I do NOT let him in and ask one of
the staff to serve him his meal on the street, which we do.
He pronounces it 'delicious' but can he come in now. I try to explain that not everyone was very appreciative of his previous condition in the kitchen. He seems to be somewhat flummoxed by this as to there having been any aspect of unrest or disquiet that may have had anything to do with him whatsoever. Fair enough actually as an exercise in pure logic he has me beaten. Clothes need washing [including trainers and rucksack] therefore a priori put everything in washing machine...........

The days appears to be settling down now and a quiet ensues, people
are fed, people are smiling, people are coming and going again when I
hear a urgent sounding banging noise from the client toilet area only
to discover one of my favourite clients Saleem is stuck in one of the
toilet cubicles -
madness ensues with gangs of clients advising me what to do, how to
break into a locked door [some of them are experts at this remember]
and proceed to take the front of the handle and lock off the trapped
door - this of course ensures that once taken off there is absolutely
nothing we can do to get him out - its is absolutely secure and too
strong a door to break with my puny shoulders [or his and he's a big
I tell my boss with possibly a rather sad, defeated tone to my voice
by now and she [ whilst struggling to believe what I have just told
her] decides to call the Fire Service - who when we state the nature
of the problem think its a hoax and promptly hang up.

Saleem by now is getting panicky and lets me know he suffers from
claustrophobia. I assure him help is on the way and we try a
different number for the emergency services. The Fire Service, the station being
approximately 200 yards across the square from us, decide when
convinced there is a real emergency to send a fire truck with full
crew, lights flashing, sirens blaring to get across the town square

After seeing the nature of the problem the fire crew are excellent
and try a mole wrench [I pipe up "Nope, tried that!"] and then snub
nose pliers [to which I pipe up "Nope, tried that!"] and then the
Captain says, one eye on this know-it-all squeaking in his ear,
turning to one of his team "Fetch me my special screwdriver" to which
a burly great firemen returns carrying a crowbar, whacks it into the
gap by the lock and proceeds to wrench the entire door off its
hinges, thus releasing Saleem to a tumultuous round of applause
By this time it is time to close for the day and the Director turns
up and asks us what sort of day we have

I am going to go now and lie down in a dark room with an ice bag on
my head muttering quietly to myself
.....you never know I might just decide to do my washing

Wondering what the rest of the week will bring. Why its only last week that we had a full armed response team try to come in. I say TRY to come in, some staff decided to tell me not to let them in! How do you do that exactly? To two DCI's in plain clothes, six armed policemen, a dog handler and an urgent tone in their voices?
I say 'Let them in!'

"They have GUNS!"

and sure enough they come in looking for two ne'er-do-wells who came in yesterday to exchange needles for their heroin habit - not folk I have seen before but apart from looking as hard as nails are actually pleasant enough and go on their way with minimum fuss. Apparently they are suspected of armed robbery and by the time any authorities have checked the CCTV footage that is forever pointed at our front door decided rather than call us and ask whether we have them on site the following day decide to send a full armed response unit.

Mind you the only people seemingly upset are those of our clients with dogs on site in the garden as the response of the assembled mutts is to start setting about the previously rather impressive looking German Shepherd dog attached to a policeman. It doesn't whimper exactly but has the distinct look of someone HUGELY outnumbered.
Realising these dastardly criminals are no longer present after 24 hours the response team decide to leave the premises with a rather hangdog attitude which is a distinct change to their demeanour from when the arrived but they get a cheerful 'Cheerio!' from me and we set about setting up for lunch.
Oh well, Hey ho! At least it's never dull.........