September 27, 2008

When did you last see your lawyer?

One evening when I was in the unit, we were allowed to watch a video: somebody, either a patient with a good sense of humour or a member of staff with a poor one, chose Terminator II. Or perhaps they had just forgotten, as I had until it started, that part of the movie is set in a psychiatric hospital in which Sarah Conner is incarcerated.

Having stuck to her story about a robotic killing-machine sent backwards through time to assassinate her, she finds herself locked up and thereby facing a dilemma. Does she continue to tell the truth, which has caused her to be considered mad - or does she lie instead, in the hope that if she does, they will believe her? Eventually, seeing that while she continues to insist on the truth of her story, they will keep her inside indefinitely, she tells them that she's changed her mind. She now understands that it was all nonsense, no such thing ever happened, she had imagined it: but she's all right now, so could they let her go? It is of no use: as she admits she suffers from delusions, they decline to release her. There is no way out. Enraged, she attacks the psychiatrist.

I thought this was pretty funny even at the time. I didn't laugh a lot during the fortnight I was locked away, but it was far too close to my own situation to do anything else. The doctors believed that I intended to take my own life, which I did not. So they decided that the reason I wanted to be let out was so that I could kill myself: anything I said other than "I agree that I am suicidal" was therefore a front, a scheme to induce them to release me so that I would be free to kill myself if I could. If I told the truth, they would assume it was a lie, and I would continue to be locked up: if, however, I decided to play along and tell them they were right, they would consider me suicidal, and I would continue to be locked up.

I had read Kakfa, but I had never lived inside it until then. If it was funny, it was perhaps because there was no other way to make sense of it than to consider it absurd. If you tell the truth, you will be disbelieved. The only way to be believed would be to lie. That is funny: the world turned upside down. The absurd is funny, what's funny is what's absurd. It's funny to recount it: it was even funny, very briefly, at the time. But it's less funny to recall it, to recall the fear that it involved.

If to be mad is to refuse to accept reality, then this was madness: to live within it was to live in the power, the genuine and frightening power, of the mad. They can keep you there: they can do things to you when you're there. They can do these things not on the basis of anything they've proved, but only on the basis of what they've decided. They are not people who like to admit that they might be wrong.

How does one approach such a situation? Wait it out? What if you had to wait forever? Or wait for one's chance? I don't know if I ever would have run, though I thought about it often: it was a contingency rather than a contingency plan. Everybody who is sectioned is entitled to appeal to a tribunal: I was told this on the afternoon of my incarceration, and made the appeal that same day. If the appeal failed, I decided, then I would have to try and run. I say decided: I decided only in the way that you "decide" anything that you don't believe you will ever have to do. That is the thing about madness, you never really believe that it is happening. You can never quite accept it. You cannot never quite decide that you have no choice, that you must act on the basis of having no choice, because this is mad. How can you believe what is mad? How can you proceed on the basis of madness?

The need to take that decision was postponed by the existence of the Tribunal which, by law, should have taken place within seven working days of the day of my incarceration. This should have been no later than Friday the 22nd of September: having some sense of habeas corpus, I assumed that if it was not arranged by that time, I would, of necessity, be free to go.

But I assumed, at the same time, that I would not: just as one had to try and cope with the apparent fact that truth would be treated as falsehood and falsehood as truth, so one had to believe two opposite things at the same time, in the absence of any information to discount either one of them. Plainly, if the law said that a patient was entitled to a Tribunal within a certain period of time, and that period expired, they must perforce be released. Otherwise the provision of the law was without meaning and rendered that law an ass. But equally plainly, the Friday came, and I had no notification that any Tribunal was arranged: the Friday passed, and nobody came to tell me that I was free to go.

Nobody came, in fact, to tell me anything. Except, eventually, late on Friday, I was told that somebody from the relevant department had phoned the unit, in the afternoon, and said that no Tribunal had been arranged. They did not even ask to speak to me. I did not even possess that right, the right to be told, directly, that my legal rights were without meaning. I insisted on phoning them back, of course, once I had been told, and told them what I thought about it. But it changed nothing: I was still locked up, and the rights that were supposedly mine in law did not apply. Did not apply and did not matter.

Some years later, I found myself in an office of a legal firm, through whose window I could see, a few yards away, the wall of the house in which my late great-aunt had lived for fifty years. I was there because I had recently read about some people in a similar position to the one that I had once been in: denied a hearing by the time the law demanded, they had gone to court over the matter and - no small amount of time later - been awarded compensation.

Only small sums, a few hundred pounds apiece, but something, at least, for being treated as a person without the protection of the law. Holiday money, not disproportionate, something at any rate. I could see no obvious difference between their cases and mine, so I consulted a solicitor to see if a precedent had been set from which I could gain some small benefit.

It had - and it had not. A precedent had been set - and an important one - but it was not one that could benefit me. The lawyer explained why. The action had been taken under the Human Rights Act, which, although passed in 1998, had not come into effect until the start of October 2000. October 2000. And I had been inside in September.

I laughed again. One would wish for other things to laugh about than ironies. But even if that is all there is, one laughs at them nonetheless. Of course, of course, it would have to be that way. What other way could it have been?

It was futile to shout down the phone at a functionary just because they couldn't even be bothered to tell me I had no tribunal. But I did it anyway, and I was right to do it: when you can do nothing, you have to do the little you can do. I stopped eating, too, after the Friday afternoon: that was a contingency plan I did put into action. And it was futile too. But you have to do the little you can do. If you are deprived of the protection of the law, you have to do the little you can do.

I was not, however, deprived of the protection of a lawyer. When they informed me, on the first afternoon, of my right to appeal to a tribunal, they also provided a list of legal practices which specialised in the field. I chose one, for no reason that I can remember, and a solicitor came to see me. Over the following fortnight she did a lot of things for me. The most important was that she believed me.

I can remember her saying so, not straight away, but later. Perhaps even afterwards. She hadn't just represented me, she had believed me. It's a strange thing for a lawyer to tell their client. A strange thing for a lawyer to have to tell their client: a lawyer who said they didn't believe their client would be obliged to terminate their relationship. It goes unsaid. You assume that your lawyer is prepared to believe your story and act on that assumption. If they had to assure you they believed you, it would as likely mean they didn't, as they did. The spoken assurance is no stronger than the unspoken assumption. It merely raises the same doubts it aims to assuage.

But the rules are different, inside the unit. Normality is that you are not believed: the assumption is that what you are saying cannot be accepted. People lie: but normally we assume that they are telling the truth, if only probably, if only as a provisional position. In the unit, the provisional position and the normal one is that you are not to be believed. You are not normal: you are lower than normal. You feel it, you feel it. You feel less than human, because you are not free to move: because you are not trusted to move. You are deprived of the normal assumptions about your intentions and your integrity, the assumptions which comprise everyday human dignity. And you feel less than human because where other people are believed, you are not to be believed. As much as anything, it is absence of worth. And, this being so, when you are believed, it is transformative. Where belief is restored, the same is true of self-belief.

We did have a tribunal in the end and when we had it, I was sure that I would win. You always are. Even though you know, from practice, that you are not believed, it is impossible to accept it. What is true, is true, no matter how many times it is not believed. Where you know what is real, you cannot believe what is unreal, not unless you want to. There are always four fingers, never five: never five unless it suits you to believe that. And you can believe the truth indefinitely, provided only that one other person believes it too.

Once people have taken the decision to lock you, up, they cannot take the decision to let you go, unless something has changed. Not lightly. They have a stake in it: they cannot change their minds, or cannot open them, cannot accept that they might have got it wrong. For all the protestations that people do not do this lightly, for all the claims of professional integrity, once they have done it, it is not like that any more. After that, there is ego involved, there is face to be lost. It is human, perhaps, to wish to avoid to loss of face. But it is human, too, to feel anger, anger that has barely abated eight years on, when somebody keeps you locked up, and humiliated, rather than accept a loss of face.

Dear Christ - there is much that it is hard to remember, but it is so easy to remember how angry I was. They told me that I had a problem with anger: maybe I did. But maybe I was so angry because I was angry at them for what they had done. And that, they could not see. With their all-seeing eyes, that could look into my head and tell them what I was thinking, that could tell them what my plans and intentions were - that, they could not see.

But I got out. The minute that it was not their decision, I got out. On the 27th of September 2000, I got out. Nobody ever said a word of sorry and nobody ever paid a penny by way of compensation. But I got out. We had to wait a short time while they filled in the paperwork - and what an outrage that felt like, having to wait for the freedom that had already been restored to you - but I got out. I never lied and I never told them what they wanted to hear from me. And I got out. And in the struggle to get out, in the anger at my incarceration, in the sense of outrage that it set off inside me, in the restored sense of self-belief that it gave me when I was believed, I found myself alive again, I began to believe in myself once again. I beat them, I beat them! I was hopeless, in a cell, pinned down and assaulted, deprived of privacy, deprived of liberty, threatened with forcible medication, and I beat them! I got out, I got out! There is, there is a light that never goes out, even when you cannot see it, even when your eyes close in the cell and you believe you want to die. There is a light that never goes out.

There were friends who sustained me while I was in the unit, and there have been friends who have sustained me since. Friends I stayed with, friends I met, friends who I will never meet. The love of cats, the love of chess, and the experience, finally, of finding my second life. There is a light that never goes out.

All these people and all these things. There was a nurse, too, just one of them, who spoke to me, and began to believe me, and told the tribunal that she did not believe I should be there. But I remember that my lawyer got me out, and drove me, from the place that was no place, to the station, from which I took the train that took me away from there and to a place where I could rest. She told me she believed me, and she believed me. And I remember that. Often, I remember that.

But I cannot remember her name. I had her card in my wallet for years, but eventually, in one of my many clearouts, in one of my many moves, it was mislaid. I cannot remember her name. I remember the date. I remember all the dates. Eight years ago today, she got me out and drove me to the station. I am crying here, as I write this and I remember, in front of my computer, in a small shop, in a small town and very far from England, and every two or three minutes I have to go to the sink, and wash my face, and dry it with a towel. I remember. It was eight years ago today. And today, I am moving house, and going to the village. Today, I am moving house, and in May I shall be married. In May I shall be married. But if she had not believed me, I would not be here.

But I cannot remember her name. I would like to remember it. I would like to send her a card. To say thank you. To say thank you for believing me. To say all the thank yous in the world.


At September 30, 2008 9:20 p.m., Anonymous WorldbyStorm said...

Nothing in response to your piece, ejh, will sound anything other than trite - however well meant or heartfelt....

At October 05, 2008 9:42 p.m., Blogger Andy H said...

A powerful piece, Justin. Congratulations on your impending marriage.


At January 21, 2009 4:42 p.m., Anonymous Reinhard said...

Quote: ...and in May I shall be married...

Congratulations, Justin. Always a good step, in spite of what cynics / skeptics might say.

Reinhard (formerly Imperial College Library Service..) Married since 18.04.2008

At January 21, 2009 4:48 p.m., Anonymous Reinhard said...

Quote: '... and in May I shall be married. ...'

Congratulations. Always a good step, in spite of what cynics / skeptics might say:

Reinhard (formerly Imperial College Library 'Service')
Married since 19.04.2008

At January 22, 2009 9:29 a.m., Blogger ejh said...

Hmmm. That's two different dates. Did they get the words of the ceremony wrong the first time?


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