Medical Angels


It was chaos, looking back. Above my desk I had a small notice board. On it I’d pinned a small photo a colleague had taken of Dog the Bounty Hunter’s house in Hawaii while she was on honeymoon, a medal from McDonalds that a patient had given to me with the words “you’re the best”, a picture of Emilio Zapata, something the daughter of my recently ex’ed-partner had drawn, and two empty coffee shop loyalty cards. I never drank coffee. On my desk were piles of paperwork, a copy of the Tora, and a bottle of my medication that needed keeping cool – I’d stopped storing it in the staff fridge because someone had hidden it once, right about the same time as someone pissed in my bottle of orange squash…hohoho.

The NHS Drug Treatment Programme where I worked was managed by a fat ex Chief Inspector who liked to shoot animals and talk wistfully about how things used to be in the Police Force, and who had the widest management-speak vocabulary I’ve ever come across. He had all the politician gestures, too – fist with thumb on top to denote firm but non-threatening authority, open hand……shit, I can’t even bring myself to describe the rest of it. Too awful for words. Like watching a zoo-mad ape going through the same gestures over and over again with conviction in its face, but no soul in its eyes.

I know there’s a huge outpouring of sentiment when it comes to the NHS. Before I worked for them I felt the same way; love and respect to the army of caring angels who often worked for nothing just for the chance to make the world a better place. And, I’ll be honest, that kind of shit appealed to me at first; still does. What I actually found was much, much different. People simply didn’t care. They went through the motions – because if they didn’t, they’d be disciplined – but the default setting was one of irritation and hatred of patients. When a well known patient died of a heroin overdose, people laughed and made up jokes. How we chuckled that morning when his corpse was discovered in an alleyway by the local bin men, blue, needle hanging out of his forty three year old arm. Funny, but there weren’t many laughs at his funeral; I know; I went to it.

A CPN on the team bragged about how little work he did, but still missed the times when he used to sneak patient’s diazepam for himself on a psychiatric ward while he slept on night shifts. There was a lot to be said for the free time and the free meds. And some could find a lot of free time if they were clever enough.

I found some staff making ‘Top Trump’ cards of our patients with categories including “Mental”, “Smell” and “likelihood of death”….. Really. They sat laughing; thought it was what humans in need were about – a cheap laugh, people to look down at. It’s a lovely feeling to be overweight, with money in the bank, a house, car, job, and the moral high ground over someone with an addiction problem. Power is something even a low-grade NHS worker clings to at almost any given opportunity. Help yourself to the view of someone’s shitty life and suddenly your own doesn’t look so bleak, eh.

I was the most unpopular member of staff on the Team. I wore that honour as a badge. I didn’t go on a single ‘Staff do’, or buy a single birthday present. Someone once asked me why I never did anything out of work with my colleagues – thought I was the weird one in all of this – but I couldn’t tell them the truth: I hated the whole lot of them more than most people; that I knew those fuckers were employed to help the vulnerable and instead they’d become hideous monsters. Man…. If ever I got into heroin again I’d know to stay a million miles from that place. The anecdotes I’d heard about families chaining opiate-dependent offspring to radiators to help with a detox  made total sense when scum like my colleagues were the alternative.

When I finally left – with my mental health in tatters, after a suicide attempt (my third), and a subsequent suspension – I heard people were glad to see the back of me; that jokes had been made about my failed suicide once the news had gotten out, and that I was “never any good”.

That summer I sat in my little flat with the curtains closed, medicated out of my mind, braving frequent appearances from the mental health team, daily visits from my poor mother (who dreaded knocking on that door each morning and there being no reply), and reckoned on it all being the end of me. It wasn’t. Clearly. I had messed up a relationship – someone I’d wanted like crazy since we’d been at school – and now I was alone with the mice in the dark.

It was ironic the Mental Health Crisis Team had helped to save my life on that occasion. The NHS had compounded me getting really ill that summer, and punished me for it with rabid joy, but it had also arrived in time to stop my overdose and death. Dialectics personified.

I don’t know where I’m going with this now. Do I hate the NHS? Am I just mad at working with fucking idiots? Am I bitter? What’s the problem here? I really don’t know. I suppose I want to tell you not everyone in the NHS is bad, but some are and that’s the point. And those kind of people should stand out, but they don’t. Not every port is ok in a storm, even if it’s meant to be, that much is clear to me. The NHS saved my life, and continues to help me on a daily basis. For that, I’m grateful. But don’t ask me to believe in Angels.

“Call on God, but row away from the rocks.” – HST

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