I was talking recently to one of the staff at the Tenants Participation Unit at our local council. We were talking about a scheme we hope to introduce of a series of local experts to provide key contacts for those who need specific details about a certain block of flats or the section of a street on which that person lives. It’s a great idea, saves money, ticks a box on Cameron’s Big Society bumpf and, in reality, allows people to understand that it’s their knowledge of a community that makes it a community. The talk extended beyond that a little whilst we discussed the idea of mental health first aid and how dangerous it could be and how offensive I, as a person with a mental health problem, found it. We talked of how being a good neighbour was as important to those with invisible illness as those with very visible illnesses or age related problems. Neighbours often have an accurate insight into people with mental illness that they don’t know they have. They see people from day to day, week to week and can often accurately gauge how that person is in reality and that goes a long way into prevention of fear and discrimination.
I know how difficult I can be to like, let alone love, but my neighbours tend to cherry pick the bits about me that they do like. They rarely go as far as to ask me how I am but that’s a sign of the times – who really wants to know? They do often say they haven’t seen me for a while and have I been all right or knock on the door and have a chat. Simple things and the kind of ethos we’re trying to encourage in a subtle way. If you get to know someone as a person then their health problems become immaterial. They just become people who have bad times. You don’t have to have in depth knowledge of an illness or even understand it to any extent to be understanding.
I went to a Roman Catholic primary school. It was run by the Sisters of Mercy who lived in a huge house about half a mile down the road at the top of the street I lived in. I went on a tour there with other girls from my secondary school once and the all pervading memory is walking on a gang way above huge vats of steamy water whilst nuns of all ages slaved away washing the dirty laundry of every priest for miles around. It felt like a very cold and empty place in spite of all the steam and energy that was in evidence but I had in my head a memory that told me that there was love in that place even if you couldn’t see it. We saw nuns working hard for the glory of God in service of a sexist religion; the famous love of God didn’t come in to it, at least on the surface.
When I was smaller I was always getting into scrapes of one kind or another. I was always covered in bruises and was asked by my teachers more than once exactly how the bruises got there. The truth was if I didn’t bruise or cut myself going up the tree then I did when I fell out of it. I was and still am, the epitome of a tomboy.
When I was nine I chased my friend Jacqueline across the schoolyard. She swerved when we reached the brick built toilet block and I didn’t and ran into it head first. I learned that day I had a very tough skull and that you really do see stars if you hit your head hard enough. I rapidly developed an egg-sized lump in the middle of my forehead. I like to think I looked like an emerging unicorn but in reality I looked like a nine-year old girl with a big lump on her upper face. A crowd of children gathered around me whilst Jacqueline ran for a teacher and they scattered twice as fast as Jacqueline reappeared with Sister Mary Vincent.
Sister Mary Vincent was our headmistress, one of the aforementioned Sisters of Mercy and she ruled our school lives with a rod of forged steel. She was tall, thin and scary and she was walking towards me faster than the kids around me were running away. I expected her to shout at me but she just bent down, gently touched the lump and said quietly that she thought I should spend some time with her in her study. This was frightening stuff because a) she didn’t shout and b) I was going to have to sit in her study. That’s where she kept the canes.
Being a Catholic school we were taught to have love and understanding for those people we found difficult to love. It’s easy to love people that show us love and respect and defer to our superiority but it’s hard to even like those who constantly challenge our ability to tolerate them. Sister Mary Vincent was one of the people I found it difficult to like and it was a difficulty that tended to run through the whole school.
She sat me at a dark wood table on a bench with a cushion and a glass of squash ala 1960s milkman. A pile of suitably religious comics appeared with that week’s copy of the Bunty on top and served with a smile that said, “Read the Bunty”. She sat at her desk with her back to me writing. Occasionally she picked up the Bakelite phone on her desk and spoke to someone far away in a gentle voice. Every few minutes she turned to me and smiled, her whole face melting into a wonderful expression of love, care and concern. Then she would turn away and work a little more. I sat with her all afternoon and fell in love with her. She transformed from the stern woman who had to run a school whilst being dictated to by men who could never teach, ruled by a religion that, at it’s best, was contradictory into a woman who loved us as much as she loved God.
A year or so later she had a breakdown and had to leave the school. There was talk of how it was best, of how she may have snapped and hurt a child. Had anyone listened to children in those days they would have known she could not hurt any child because she found us all too precious, she loved us a great deal. All of us, even the ones that no one could even like let alone love.
As the years have passed I have come to realize that she taught me that day that everyone has hidden facets to their personality. It’s not always appropriate to show those facets to just anybody so we hide them. She has taught me that if we look beyond our prejudices then we are likely to find wonderful, warm, beautiful, loving people.
I can never forget her; I will always love her and just for touching me in that way her life was truly precious.