“When you say ‘he has seen the light’ you sound as if you mean ‘corrupted,’ ” he said. “Something like that, yes. Different worlds, Commander. Down here, it would be unwise to trust your metaphors. To see the light is to be blinded. Do you not know that in the darkness, the eyes open wider?”
Thud by Terry Pratchett
I remember that there had been a sudden meeting, which I was at because my Mum wanted support, but I wasn’t allowed to say anything. The ‘horrible place’ had suddenly decided that it couldn’t meet my Dad’s needs; it also seemed to have recategorised the severe mental illness to dementia, which was also severe, and not going to get better, but a different sort of severe, which meant an illness but not a mental illness, or at least not the same sort of mental illness: which meant a care home, not a hospital. It meant ‘find a care home and move out by next week, because you are blocking a bed, and by the way, now you have to use the collaterol on the house to pay for care, because he’s ill but not the specific type of ill we are looking for.’
The social worker, a mousey woman I instantly dislike, speaks to me afterwards. ‘I don’t think your Mum got it.’ She’s right, I don’t think she got it either. ‘He needs to be somewhere else as soon as possible. Can you talk to her? I have a list here of all the care homes that deal with dementia.’ I think about how my Mum is likely to react to this and decide it will definately be better not to be the messenger when it does click. The social worker is still talking, ‘….and remember the house can’t be sold while she is still living in it, and only up to half the collaterol, because she owns half the house…’.
I decide to try and get the social worker to realise that it’s really her job to have the hard conversations, but I don’t want her to think I’m difficult. There are consequences if you are difficult- probably they will write it down somewhere, judgementally. ‘You’re the social worker?’ I ask tentatively, as though I am confused about roles. She doesn’t really get it, going into what her role is, then holding out the list to me. I try again, ‘I’m fourteen.’ It’s not going to click with this adult either, she’s still trying to get me to, ‘… talk to my Mum who seems a bit upset just now’. Being helpful and polite is clearly obligatory, doing the adult’s job is clearly obligatory, ‘I’ll see what I can do to help…’ I say.
Later, much later, after having earnt the ire of the horrible place and the horrible people from the horrible place (who for some reason are now cooing over how lovely my Dad is, how gentle, how little problem – how he needs to be elsewhere), because my Mum has not been quick in deciding on a care home. It’s a big decision: the only time she will have a choice in who looks after him and what the place is like.
The lady in charge of the place my Mum chooses is kind, the care workers are smiling, there are people and families in the Day Room, there are activities and the door to the garden is open. Welcoming people say we can come any time, show us everything, say its my Dad’s home now and find out how he likes his tea. They leave me and my Mum to settle him into the room. We unpack everything and he sits in his own chair from home that they let us bring. I can feel the relief. This is not a horrible place. This is the real difference between Schitzophrenia and Parkinson’s with Lewis Bodies apparently.
Then my Dad falls when he gets up. My Mum tried to haul him up, badly, awkwardly, in a way that will likely get them both hurt. She is whispering but it feels like a yell, panicked and harsh, ‘Get up. Get up. They won’t let you stay if you fall, get UP.’ She has started to kick him. He makes no sound. The flats of her hands are slapping him, the fingers clawing ineffectually at his jumper. His hands come up over his face, cradling his head. It is the best thing to do in my experience, with that kind of slapping, the main risk is being knocked out.
My mind starts to turn away. I am not thinking- just watching. In my mind is what happened the night this all started, and my breathing is fast and shallow. This is serious and the risks are high. I become aware that I have stopped and bring my mind back, slowing my breathing, and, reaching my cold thumb and finger underneath the sleeve of my school uniform, I pinch myself with the fingernails. This trick always works. I am thinking again.
What are the risks? No knives in the room, no easily moveable objects. He wasn’t holding anything when he fell, as he liked to do for some reason. The physical violence is not directed to the head, or the soft parts of the trunk and kicks and slaps are alternating with attempts to pull him up.
What set this off? Fear. Fear that she will have to look after him, that he will come home because there will not be a care home that will look after him. Fear too that he will go back to the horrible place. She cares, in her own way.
What can I do? Help lift him up, but that might move into an attack directed at me, which will be more focussed, or a three way struggle. I remember what can happen and have to pinch myself again to make myself wake up and bring my mind back to the problem in hand. Also, in the longer term, if the care home cannot cope with falls, this scene will be repeated, but now I am thinking again so I decide that this is not a time for that conversation. Mum is too stressed.
I remember the kind Lady in charge, who I know is now in her office. I think about the good feeling she gave me. She might be worth a risk. I could ask her about falls, check whether they can cope with them, ask her to come in and talk to Mum. Mum won’t hit her, and it will stop her hitting Dad too. I slide out the door, quickly and without saying anything, avoiding the risk that Mum will block me from leaving and run down the corridor. The Lady is there, the door is open. I slow down, make myself look presentable. I knock on her door, turn on bright and charming to maximum. ‘Sorry to bother you, do you have minute? I know you are busy. My Dad’s fallen,’ I say, ‘Can someone help us lift him up? He’s a bit heavy for me. Also- my Mum’s worried that he’ll not be able to stay if he falls, so …’. The Lady in charge is firm and kind. ‘Oh love, don’t worry about that, residents fall all the time….Let’s go down and get him up, then I’ll put your Mum’s mind at rest.’ I can remember the relief, as I ran down the corridor to, ‘Just let my Mum know…’.
As I get back in, Mum is still slapping and slapping, ‘The Lady’s coming,’ I say, ‘to help, lots of the residents fall and its OK.’ Mum looks at me and the release of stress and fear is mixed with one of stern anger that I might have told family business. The look I am given, I know I’m in trouble later.
Later I am sitting with my back against a tree in the dark and it is cold. My head aches and when I try to stand, I fall because I am so dizzy. It’ll take me a while to walk home, and when I get there I will check to see if my nose is bleeding, or my ears, the size of my pupils, whether there are bruises on my upper arms. Being shaken, or slapped around the head doesn’t lead to bleeding where it shows. No-one will believe you if there isn’t clear proof. Bruises of course aren’t proof enough because they could come from anywhere and being knocked out doesn’t leave a mark. I always laugh when adults on Child Protection courses are so convinced that they will believe children. It’s the children who have the right of it: they have to be more in touch with what the adults will actually do, because the consequences of the adults’ actions fall on them.
I remember that Lady because she came and she helped. I remembered her because if I had got to know her better, maybe I would have told her. But then again I had learnt what ‘place of safety’ meant to adults, thinking about the ‘horrible place’ – and in the News or at school they were always saying that you should tell if bad things were happening, so everyone knew that they took kids away, so they would be ‘safe’. In seeing what happened at the psychiatric hospital, I learnt that adults definately did not seem to mean ‘safe’ in the way I meant ‘safe’. Based on the ‘place of safety’ they had chosen for my Dad, I thought they meant ‘silent’ or ‘under-control’ or ‘not resisting anymore’ or ‘violence’ or ‘abuse’. A place where, however still or silent or compliant you were, it was never compliant or silent enough. My Dad was a very compliant man, very respectful of authority, always gentle with me- and I knew how they treated him. So no, anything the adults had to offer was clearly not going to be much different from the situation I was already in, however much I wanted help. It was clear what place of ‘safety’ meant to the adults, and with the scandals about the children’s homes in the News it was clear to me that the authorities definately seemed to be using their alternative concept of safety in the way they treated children. Every child learns that telling has consequences. The only way to survive is to be clear which way forward has the least worst outcome. From the information that was available to me, I was sure I would not be in a better position than I was before if I told, and I couldn’t see how my siblings would be either. If the authorities didn’t believe me, there would be the initial backlash from my mother, then more of the same. Even if they did believe me, I certainly wouldn’t be able to protect any younger siblings from the ‘safety’ the authorities were likely to have in mind.
When I had had to tell before, because of the knife, no-one had listened to what had happened and had been happening before it got to that point. They hadn’t believed me or even asked. They saw the notes: a man who had been talking to the Dr. about memory loss and seeing things that weren’t there, who had been doing strange things like emptying out the kitchen cabinets and arranging everything on the stairs or standing in the corner holding a kettle. Or on the night things got beyond what I could help with, or cope with, the man who forgot what he was doing while slicing the bread and was standing on the landing with the bread knife. They saw it as someone with symptoms of a mental illness attacking someone. From my point of view, it was a very confused person who was holding the wrong things at the wrong time raising their hands to protect themselves. Perhaps, given that I had fallen down the stairs as I backed away from my Mum hitting me, he had been protecting me.
So there were many reasons I didn’t tell again. Mostly, I had learnt through seeing it with my own eyes that the people who were meant to help used the same techniques of violence as the person hurting me; that the people who were meant to help were on the side of the person causing the most consistent harm; that my story did not have the right injuries to be believable.
And there is the other wound to trust- even the gentlest person in my life could do something that was wrong, inexplicable and will forever be incomprehensible.