Here was my new psychiatrist. The normal guy – a little Jewish bloke – was on holiday, possibly extended due to workload stress, and his replacement wasn’t taking any shit.

“So……tell me…….these thoughts you are having……..they are how real?”

“Pretty real. I mean, they are pretty intense and I’m having to work hard to dismiss them. You know how it is.”

“No, I don’t.” He scribbled on the casenotes. “It boils down to this Benjamin: I’m going to ask you a question and if you answer anything but ‘no’ I will have you forcibly sectioned right here, right now.” What could I say? There was no way I was going to be carted off to that hell-hole – there’s a lot to be said for being a voluntary patient when the impending loss of freedom is dangling in front of your eyes.


“Do you feel like killing yourself?”

I thought about the answer for maybe ten seconds. There was really only one answer. Perhaps giving it would prove to him I wasn’t insane, maybe it was what he wanted to hear in more ways than one. Let him know that I had understood the gravity of telling him the truth. “No” I lied.

He laughed a little under his breath and wrote in big capitals in his clichéd bad doctors scrawl so even I could read it from ten feet away upside down – “DECLARES NO SUICIDAL IDIATION”.

“Good,” he said “now perhaps you’ll consider the therapy Doctor Rubenstein has suggested to you.” He had me where he wanted me; threatened, scared, compliant.

“Yeah, ok.”

“Good. You may go.”

I went to the chemist and got my new prescription on the way back home. Olanzapine. I hadn’t taken it before but I knew it wasn’t termed a “Tablet cosh” for nothing. In the kitchen I thought I’d be able to split the tablets in half just in case I got wiped out by them, but they were so tiny every time I tried to cut one with a big carving knife on the worktop they either shot across the room or disappeared in small white puffs leaving nothing but powder. Maybe he wasn’t selling me a curveball. Maybe they would help stop my thoughts racing? So I took one, as prescribed….

The next day I was still on the sofa. My partner (now ex) had half covered me up with a small thin blanket. I was cold and couldn’t understand how I’d fallen asleep. I sat up but fell back down like a ragdoll with my head spinning. What the fuck were these things? Is this how the insane are treated? True, they worked in a sense – I can’t remember thinking at all for about 20 hours, but I was thinking now alright, and I didn’t like it.

I was due a visit that afternoon from my boss. He was coming out to tell me some bad news, I guessed it was to fire me, so I had to get my head straight, regain some dignity. If he was going to fire me I wanted to at least be conscious enough to look him in the eye and tell him what a motherfucker he was. My partner had apparently gone to work. What was the time anyway? Eleven. Right, sit up, breath, check I hadn’t puked anywhere or pissed myself. I was OK. “Get a grip”. I wasn’t going to take those fucking tablets again! NO chance, no way. I would become a bloated zombie within a month.

He turned up on time, all efficiency and lack of empathy, refusing a drink. “Right….erm….I’ll cut straight to it. I’m going to take the role of Team Leader from you when you return to work.”


“Errr…..because I think you’ll need some time to recover.” It was a lie, but he thought I was fucked up enough to believe him. I didn’t think I had a choice in the matter. He left after about five minutes. Job done. I watched him climb into his Ford Focus, look at himself in the mirror for a few seconds, then screech off up the road.

Two months later, when my psychiatrist thought I was well enough, I went back to work. I was looking forward to completing a full recovery, to getting rehabilitated back in the real world. And, god knows, it was better than being at home. My boss sat me down in his office on the morning of my return and the first words out of his mouth were – “Now you’re bonkers I’ve lost my trust in you. I want you around this office all the time, under my nose. You’re a loose cannon.” Ordinarily, talk like that aimed at me would have got an equal or, more likely, more intense and inappropriate response, but I just sat there in total disbelief. He went on and on about how being diagnosed with what I had was going to follow me around now and even said I wasn’t ever going to “get better”. If it had been a warehouse job I could have understood his ignorance, but I worked for an NHS Mental Health Trust (albeit in the Drug Team) and he was a senior manager. It would have been laughable if it hadn’t been so hurtful. For about half an hour I sat and listened to this moron in silence wanting to cry on one hand, and smash him and his office to bits on the other. But when he’d finished I just stood up, shrugged, sighed, and left the room a different man. I knew then I was fucked. Career over. Everything I’d worked for and built up had gone.

At home that night in the early hours I crept downstairs and emptied my pill drawer, taking those I knew to be the most toxic out of their packets, and headed out into the summer air with the intention of shutting up my boss, girlfriend, and every thought, for good. There were no stars.

As I sat on the bench placed to mark the spot of the old pit top and stared out across the depressing Doncaster skyline I thought “Is this it? Is this all I’ve got, a job with a bunch of fucking morons, a partner from hell, and a future of mediocrity? There’s a whole world out there, love, people, and a future away from the dirty hole of drugs and insanity but I can’t get out.” A good life felt a million miles away.

I took out the tablets and wondered if there was a god. I even prayed randomly to anything that might be listening. Nothing answered, not that I was expecting it to. I couldn’t contain my thoughts, time sped up, and feelings merged into the deep, confusing pit of it all. I sat with the tablets in one hand and can of drink in the other.

When the sun started to light up the eastern edges of the foul Doncaster skyline I simply dropped the pills down the storm grate next to the bench, stood up, hurled the can into the trees and walked home. She was in bed and woke up as I tried to tip-toe across the bedroom and back into bed. “You fucking prick, you’ve woken me up,” she said, without even turning around.


Bad Blood…

I had been at the prison for about two weeks. It was tough but rewarding. My job consisted of working on the enhanced prisoners unit with about 60 young men who had little hope of a future and even less of a present. Most were lifers under the age of 21. Not all were doing life – a bit over half actually had life sentences – but 99% of them were serving over 4 years. It’s a long, long time when you’re young.


And prison is no laughing matter. Forget the crap you might have read about it being like a holiday camp, it isn’t. It’s fucking awful. They are violent and intimidating places and you are never safe. I always know if people haven’t a clue about prison because they’re the ones who say it’s too easy. It isn’t. Imagine the worst people at your school, the worst bullies maybe. Add a heroin habit to them, some inner rage, and then put them with 1,000 other people just like them. Take away any hope of positive change when they get out. Teach them how to make knives from razorblades – putting three side by side  to make the cut harder to stitch up – and how to blind someone with boiling water mixed with sugar. Now stand back….


The feeling of fear left me within a week as I began the long process of forming constructive relationships with the prisoners. I was worried that they were going to be suspicious – they were -, and aggressive – mostly they weren’t – but the one person who went out of his way to make me feel welcome was “John”. He saw the difficult time that was potentially ahead of me and I don’t know what motivated him to help, but he would always drop by and chat with me, asking me if I was ok, and generally helping me ground myself in their world. It hadn’t taken me more than five minutes to work out that we (Jane – the center manager, and I) operated in a kind of “no man’s land” in the prison. We weren’t “one of the boys” with the prisoners yet and the prison officers viewed us with stoical eyes, devaluing our work at every opportunity.We sometimes felt like we were in some crazy limbo, reliant on each other in one of the most challenging environments possible to work in. She taught me how everyone deserved a chance. I took that with me, and it’s still with me today.


John kept on being a friendly face for about two weeks, I enjoyed his company and it gave me a great sense of achievement to have begun to break down the barriers. I saw, in him, a way in to the rest of the wing (the cell block), and his smiling face was an important light in a dark, dark, difficult time starting out in my first proper job. I hadn’t bothered to ask what John was doing inside, it wasn’t really the done thing, though I knew he wasn’t a lifer. He was from some South Yorkshire shithole; poorly educated, and he talked very little about himself “outside” of the prison. He would ask me about my life, my interests, and he got from that at least some honesty in a place that thrived on lies and stories.


The center where I was based was just a room on the first floor of the wing. 60 cells stretched out away from us on two levels. Highly polished floors, a couple of pool tables, a table tennis table (where a few months later a Triad Assassin called H would beat me 21-0 in front of a joyous, baying, mob of 50 cheering prisoners), a television, a serving counter for meals, and assorted chairs. Two shower rooms were positioned on each floor, nearest to where officers could get to them in an emergency. They never managed it, and fights were common inside on the tiled floors. Below our room was the prison officers “Bubble” – a large, heavily re-enforced glass sided control room. Always manned, always alert – as useful as being staffed by beanbags sitting treacle if the wrong shift was in charge – full of camera screens, a tv which was always on, old copies of tabloid newspapers, and a silence which would descend like a shroud whenever I walked in. Pastel colours were meant to calm and sooth the violent and re-assure the vulnerable. This prison used them everywhere, even in the staff toilet. It re-assured no-one of anything except that somebody somewhere was getting a good paycheque for coming up with bullshit.


John smiled and laughed his way through it all. And he was directly responsible, two weeks later, for a growing number of prisoners using our room to sit and talk to us, read, ask about courses, or just to spill their horrors. I felt like I was up and running, thanks to him.


We didn’t work weekends. And I always wondered what they were doing while I was at home on Sunday reading the paper. I couldn’t wait to get to work on Monday just to check everyone was ok.


That Monday, about three weeks into my job, things weren’t ok at all. As I walked onto the unit I was greeted with the same sour faces in the bubble, but the whole place was silent when it should have been full of people eating breakfast, talking, arguing, the usual morning routine of every morning in prison. Instead, as I climbed the wide metal staircase up to our center, I saw a prison officer sitting outside a cell reading a paper about twenty feet from our door. “What’s going on?” I asked. He looked up and motioned me over, gesturing me to be quiet. As I approached him I saw a brown stain up the wall next to the cell, like a wet tea bag had been thrown at it and dribbled and leaked down the wall to the floor. “Have you not heard?” he asked.

“Heard what?”

“About Wharburton” he whispered. It was beyond him to use John’s first name.

“What’s happened?” I tried to whisper back, but I spoke too fast and it blurted out in collapsing vowels and a high, girly shriek.

“He was killed yesterday morning”. I can remember my mouth opening, but I couldn’t say anything, so I raised my hand and walked to the center door, unlocked it, shut it behind me, and stood there in the middle of the room for maybe five minutes, motionless. Jane came in and I told her the news. She made some phonecalls and we found out he had been in a fight yesterday morning with another of our boys “Joe”, who had got John in a headlock and crushed his skull. The stain on the wall was apparently Johns blood, kept as evidence. I spoke to one of the lads on the wing “It was a fucking accident Ben. Joe and him were just fucking about and then he stood up and had a funny look on his face, then passed out.”


It’s times like these when the first thought should be “What the fuck am I doing working in here?!”, but that wasn’t going through my mind. What I couldn’t get over was that this was all just stupid. Joe was a good kid. True, he was enormous and could bench press 180kg with ease, and…..yes….he was inside for kidnapping and torturing a drug dealer, but he simply didn’t mean to do it. Did he?


Joe had been taken to the punishment block (the “seg”, or “block”) and reports came back that he was beside himself with grief. Rumors reached us that he was to be charged with murder and the whole wing was placed on lock down as tempers were high. It was a couple of days later when the prison chaplain came to see me. “Ben, Joe is in a bad way in the block and he’s in desperate need of a friend right now.”

“You want me to go and see him?”

“I think it’d help” He replied slowly, before adding “And I’ve cleared it with them down in the seg”. We used to joke that the only person in the prison who didn’t need keys to get around was the Chaplain. He was obviously public school educated, slightly effeminate, and had more than a look of Kenneth Williams about him. Everyone loved him, everyone respected him, and I was no different. If he thought I could help, that was that. Even if it meant subjecting myself to the seg.


At the Seg, tempers were always high. They put the meanest prisoners in there and staffed it with the meanest officers they could find. The block was a place of total and utter despair in any of the prisons I worked in. Shit food, a bed, table, toilet, half an hour a day out of your cell, sometimes not even in the sunlight, and with a palpable tension bearing down on you 24hrs a day. There, through the shouting and the banging, I found nineteen year old Joe. An autopsy had just taken place on John and they had found he had a skull abnormality – some kind of eggshell skull. The police were now trying to find out if it was really murder or just a tragic accident.


I was told there would be 4 officers outside the cell while I was inside, and the door would be locked open. At any sign of trouble I was told they would “steam in” – hitting Joe, me, each other, anything that got in their line of vision. I stood in the doorway to Joe’s cell.

“Hi Joe”. He looked up, he’d been crying. They hadn’t let him have his coconut hair lotion or a comb so his afro was all over the place. His powerful shoulders struggled to be covered by the thin prison t-shirt but he looked as weak as a kitten. “Ben…..” he started to say, but trailed off and began to sob.

“You mind if I sit with you?” I asked.

“No.” There being no chair, I sat on the filthy bed next to him.

“I didn’t do it Ben, I didn’t…….it was a game….we were messing around…..fucking hell, what’s happened Ben!?” He collapsed into tears so I put my arm around his shoulder and tried to comfort him.

“Joe, it’s ok man.”

“We were friends” he said through the sobs. “I……….didn’t…….”

“It’s ok Joe.” I tried to re-assure him, but I honestly didn’t know what would happen. In this crazy place they could sign his life away for murder. Anything was possible.


We sat together for an hour or so, him mostly crying, me trying not to cry for him, and thinking of the waste of a lot of young life in the madness of prison; Johns most of all. The sun shone through the bars and left big striped shadows across us and I remember thinking “God has a sense of the cliche”. It was warm. As I left him, Joe said thanks but didn’t look up from the floor. Leaving the block, one of the officers opened their small bubble door and said “Fucking wanker, deserves all he gets, murdering scum. I hope you’re fucking happy you fucking do-good’er”. I didn’t have anything to say. There was nothing to say. So I quietly closed the big metal gate behind me, locked it with one of the large metal keys attached by a chain to my belt, then walked slowly back down the walkway in the sun.


Back on the wing two prisoners were mopping the stain from the wall and the floor. Radios were on loud, people were eating, playing pool. The wing was back to normal.


The damage had started. I was 23.

A Doncaster Alleyway

I got to work that morning and went straight to the homeless drop-in we ran for street drinkers, people with mental health problems, drug addicts, and others who just needed to avoid the cost of food in the mornings. A big breakfast of toast and cereal sits as a good base for a days soak in alcohol and the summer sunshine. For some, this was the only food they’d consume all day before starting out on the never-ending treadmill of finding money then scoring. Afternoons in opiate or alcohol bliss, sometimes both. Littering the sofas of a squat or the grass in the park. Take a couple of hours out of the mad rush and try to forget the impending crush of fear when the next rattle starts to kick in like an old bastard friend. Avoid thinking at ALL costs!


There was no pity in here, just the sound of sore throats, sore heads, and the slurping of sugary milk being drunk from cheap plastic bowls. Copies of The Sun were being leafed through, the stories poured over and weary heads mouthing words and shaking in disgust. I had, by then, given up trying to even pass platitudes with my work colleagues. I fucking hated every single one of them. Instead, I sat with the customers and swapped anecdotes and jam. Thirty Five grand a year to enjoy myself; and that’s what pissed my colleagues off more than anything I had ever said to them in any meeting or in any one of the dingy corridors: that I actually liked helping people. It went against their fakery. Their barely disguised revulsion was a shitty joke, if indeed it had been a joke at all: from the arrogant middle-aged receptionist who kept two cans of air freshener next to her to squirt into the waiting room at every opportunity, to the clock watching Police Workers who sat with bail paperwork already filled out and ready to be faxed off for an arrest warrant – issued to unsuspecting clients if they were so much as 15 minutes late to an appointment. Phrases firing off from the hips of gung ho middle class and clueless drug workers – “I’m going to enjoy sending him back to jail”, “Ten minutes until the pen of justice pots this one”. Modern day gunslinging Sheriffs in the shittiest Wild West parody conceivable. Sometimes I questioned my reasons for swimming against the tide of it all. But I kept on swimming, maybe for no other reason than to sleep at night. My colleagues wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. A takeaway, a bottle of wine, shout at the kids, recount the days stories of collapsing lives with a smug feeling of safety. Not me. I took it all back home in my heart, and it hurt. My clients were people, human beings. It was simple, surely?


I didn’t really give the day before much thought, despite the tears and the drama. Glen was, in my opinion, going to be ok after his tearful suicide admission to me at 4pm. I’d known him for a few years. He was predisposed to that kind of outburst anyway wasn’t he? I’d done the very best I could, like anyone would, and sat with him for an hour offering help, solutions, and trying everything I knew to take his pain away. I offered to leave work and spend the evening with him, maybe sit in a cafe and wait until he’d poured out enough pain to tip the balance. But he turned me down and left, still sobbing, with the words “I’m just going to find someone to split the cost of a bag with and then that’s it Ben.” We both knew what he meant. He had zero tolerance to injecting heroin at the time. IV use of that amount would kill him more surely than stepping out under a bus. I never thought he’d do anything about it. Glen was simply saying ‘please help!’ Most people just don’t act on the pain signals when the button has been pushed, people informed, a point made. Why would Glen be any different?


When I spoke to Glen’s keyworker – James – after Glen had staggered tearfully out of the building, his response was a typical one from the morons who I worked with: “So fucking what?” I felt my heart beat faster as rage grew, but over the years the cut-off point had only gotten further away and more solid. Getting wound up in that hell-hole was like taking off your clothes and trying to run to the to the moon. It bounced off the thickest skins known to nature. I was already known as a loose cannon and as someone to avoid. “Ben’s fucking crazy…”. Too many angry outbursts only re-enforced my diagnosis to the amateur psychiatrists and, fucking weeping Jesus, I didn’t need more of that kind of talk.


Rage wouldn’t have helped me, or Glen.


A sex worker came in to the Drop-in at 8.30am and walked straight up to me “You heard about Glen?”


“He’s dead”

Silence. All around the room, a sharp intake and awkward quiet. “How?” I asked.

“He went over last night in the alleyway off Thomas Road. The binmen found him just now. They said he was cold and blue.”


I stood up and walked out of the building. The early morning sunshine promised a decent day, a day I’d see out, and I walked back to the main office panicking that perhaps I could have done more for his pain. Was it my fault? God, Glen…you were worth more than this.

You doubt yourself if you have any empathy in your body when something like this happens. You find there is just a singular thought rampaging around your mind: you could have done more. James had been tipped off, ditto the boss, and the two of them were pouring over Glen’s casefile when I got into my office. “Just sort it out,” she told him, before glaring at me and swishing out of the room in her low-cut dress; all tits and ass. James hadn’t written a thing in the notes despite six months of work with Glen. “Hear about Glen then?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied, scrabbling for casenote paper and a pen. “Fuck him,” he added. His sentiment was echoed almost entirely throughout the building as NHS keyworker after NHS keyworker offered their own foul take on the worth attached to the life of 43 year old Glen Howarth. It amounted to almost zero, just another junky off the books, out of jail, and away from the straight folks. Soon forgotten.

He was buried a few weeks later and the local heroin community turned out in hardly any numbers at all. It rained that day after weeks of sunshine. Back at the office nobody knew about his funeral, and nobody cared. I lasted about seven more months.