In which The Author makes a new friend

The publication of yesterday’s entry was followed in short order by a message telling me that it that was my five hundredth post in this blog. (If you look at the Contents Page, we’re actually a few short of that milestone. That’s because my Manchester trip was split into eight separate posts, but subsumed under a single heading afterwards.)
As I told Denise P., when I started blogging on MySpace, back in 2007, I thought I’d get bored within a couple of weeks, and/or run out of steam before I made it to twenty posts. I wouldn’t have believed that I’d still be at it in the summer of 2015. I’d never have imagined reaching a figure like that.
I thought the occasion called for a small celebration, so I walked over to the Lighthouse when I left the Library. It was only a small celebration, so I bought a can of Coke and sat at one of the low tables. I hadn’t been there more than a couple of minutes when a young(ish) woman came over and asked if she could join me.
There were other tables she could have sat at, had the mood taken her. I thought it was a bit odd. This is Aberdare, a run-down ex-industrial town in the South Wales Valleys. It’s not a city, where one might expect to be approached by ‘ladies of easy virtue’ while minding one’s own business. As I’ve noted previously, however, it’s an excellent place to meet random piss-artists. There’s no guarantee that I’ll recognise all of them afterwards, of course. However, after thirty years of frequenting various boozers (and meeting any number of boozers), I have to concede that I didn’t know her face.
I said, ‘Yeah, crack on!’ and she sat opposite me, nursing half a lager.
She asked me the time (this was just before three o’clock), and when I told her, she said she’d be able to catch the chemist before they closed. By my reckoning, she had at least two and a half hours’ leeway.
But Aberdare’s a medium-sized town. There are all sorts of distractions which can come between the piss-artist and the pharmacist. For one thing, Boots is right opposite the newly-renamed Bush Inn. For another, Sheppards is just along the street from the Glosters. Even better, there’s another branch of Sheppards virtually next door to the Con Club.
She told me she was going to buy oil of cloves for a toothache which had been plaguing her for days. I checked my pockets to see if I’d stashed any Co-codamol which she could take as a stop-gap. No luck. Then she told me it had been so bad a few days ago that she’d drunk a whole bottle of whisky to numb the pain.
I don’t think I’ve ever drunk a whole bottle of anything in my life, apart from soft drinks, an occasional lager, and that old anarcho-punk standby Newcastle Brown, back in the day. Certainly not spirits, which have never done it for me. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to finish a bottle of spirits in a fortnight, never mind a single evening.
I’d already realised that I’d been captured by a fairly loopy specimen before she told me she was embarking on her final weekend session ‘before I go to Whitchurch on Monday’.
Whitchurch. That probably won’t mean anything to people outside South Wales.
Even to people who do know the area, it conjures up a wealthy suburb on the northern edge of Cardiff, sandwiched between the A470 and the river Taff. It’s where entrepreneurs, professional couples and media types live. It’s the sort of place that has a Neighbourhood Watch, coffee mornings, bring-and-buy sales, and Conservative MPs. It’s even got a golf club and a rowing club, for Goddess’ sake! A piss-artist from Aberdare would stand out like a kosher deli in Kandahar.
But Whitchurch also has a hospital. It’s known throughout South Wales as a regional centre for psychiatric treatment. (In fact, ‘Whitchurch’ is a Valleys byword for the funny farm.)
I knew immediately that my drinking companion had the hospital in mind. It’s where people go to dry out. Or, as we call it these days, Rehab.
I’ve known a few people who’ve been to Whitchurch (and similar facilities) over the years. I’ve no idea what the treatment involves. I do know that (in Whitchurch, at least) you’re supposed to stay in hospital for four weeks and then emerge, clean and sober, back into the Real World.
One of my mates did the full month, caught the train home, got off in Aberdare, walked from the station to the Cambrian, and ordered a pint as soon as he was through the door. I thought, ‘Wow, that really worked!’
(He was the guy whose body was found in the Boot Hotel a few years ago. Go figure!)
One girl I know was ‘asked to leave’ Whitchurch halfway through the month as she was so fucking annoying. When she told me that, you could have knocked me down with a feather.
Another mate of mine has had a problem with alcohol for a few years. Like many people I know, it crept up on him gradually, until the day came when he went straight to the pub instead of going to work. The doctors have written him off at least twice; he’s dried out at least twice. He’s (theoretically) in the Last Chance Saloon. Somehow he’s managed to defy the doctors’ predictions. If I call into the Lighthouse in the afternoon, he’s usually propping up the bar. Another success story for the NHS, then.
It’s not all negative, though. Yet another mate of mine was rushed into hospital in June 2001, after years of heavy drinking, suffering from almost total system failure. He knows now that he’s only a session away from an early grave, and hasn’t touched a drop since.
I know a few people who’ve done drugs rehab as well. Some of them are still clean. Others just fall back into their old ways within a short time of hitting the streets again.
Because just going to rehab is all very well, but it’s emphatically not like the Real World. It’s a controlled environment, with a routine, and regular meals, and medical supervision, and therapy, and restricted access to the outside world. You can’t succumb to temptation, because there’s no way you can get your hands on whatever it is you’re addicted to.
Then, all of a sudden, you’re back in the Real World, knocking about with the same friends and going to the same places. The urge to slide back into your old behaviour pattern must be incredibly difficult to resist, especially if you’ve suddenly become the only straight-edger in the village.
When my friend L— was on a psychiatric ward in Merthyr, I went to visit him one day. It wasn’t as terrifying an experience as I’d expected, and after a few visits I got to know some of the nurses. One sunny afternoon I asked if we could go into town (only a couple of minutes’ walk away). The nurse asked one of the doctors if it would be okay, and after a little while we were given the thumbs-up.
We called into the Vulcan, where we drank a couple of cans of Coke, did the crossword together, and played the quiz machine for a while. L— resisted any temptation to have a pint (or slip something into his Coke) because he knew that I was responsible for his well-being while he was off the ward.
That became our regular routine for my visits after that – we’d go to the pub for an hour or so, drink soft drinks, and have a chat in a different environment from the one he was in the rest of the time. One day, L—’s doctor told me that I was doing a good thing, by getting him back into the Real World and supporting him to do everyday things.
One of the nurses actually asked me if I’d thought about going into that line of work. She was impressed by how positively L— had responded following my visits. I told her that we’d been friends for a long time before he was admitted, so I knew his likes and dislikes. (I remember taking a CD of Bix Beiderbecke’s music to him one day, because we’d chatted about our tastes in jazz ages before. He listened to it endlessly, and told me it reminded him of our sessions together, putting the world to rights.)
But it’s one thing to support a mate through the bad times. It’s quite another to try to help a complete stranger, who might not even realise he needs your help in the first place. In Inhibitions and Exhibitions, one of the earlier entries in this blog, I told you about what happened when our friend S— had a nervous breakdown. It was the most frightening and challenging couple of days we’d ever lived through. We all knew him and we were all worried about him. If he was scared of what we, his friends and family, would do, imagine how much more frightening it must be when a bunch of strangers rock up to take you to hospital.
I know I couldn’t do that sort of work. I have the utmost respect for people who do have that vocation, and I’m a great admirer of the mental health care system we have locally. I know the NHS isn’t perfect, but all the doctors and nurses I’ve met are committed and caring individuals.
I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been interested in these matters for many years. I’ve done a fair bit of reading about psychology and mental health, and my friends know that I’m usually a good listener. I can talk to health professionals from the standpoint of a (reasonably) informed layperson. My friends often come to me to share a problem, because they know I’ve got a decent perspective about things like this. That’s probably why I was able to wangle a hall pass for L— when he was in St Tydfil’s. I wasn’t going to take him out and pour several pints of Guinness down his neck; I was in a position of trust, and I respected him too much to betray that trust and get us both into trouble.
I’ve spent time on the receiving end, too. Unlike some patients who come into the mental health system, I’ve always been fairly lucid. The care team and I have been able to have some interesting conversations about all manner of things. When I was talking to two of them at Prince Charles Hospital last year, one mentioned a ‘drop-in’ centre in Aberdare for people with mental health problems. His colleague just laughed and said something like, ‘I think you’re probably a bit too high functioning for that place. I can imagine you leading a discussion, but not just sitting back and listening while someone else drones on.’
I’ll take that as a backhanded compliment, I think.
I imagine that people like me are in the minority when it comes to their caseload, though. I can’t imagine what they must have to go through when they’re dealing with someone who’s confused, paranoid, delusional, aggressive, or under the influence of one or more mind-altering substances. I’ve seen some of my friends go down that road, and I don’t know how I’d cope if I was expected to negotiate with someone in that state of mind. I don’t know how I’d cope if I was in that state of mind myself, come to that. Maybe that’s why I’ve always kept well away from the drugs scene, and have never given in to the temptation to have ‘just the one’ from the top shelf along with a pint.
I hope I never get to the stage that my new female friend has reached, where it’s a stark choice between drinking and oblivion. I hope she manages to stay the course and make a full recovery.
The bitter irony is, of course, that all over the suburb of Whitchurch, there are well-heeled people who’ll think nothing of drinking a bottle of wine every night, rolling a joint after a stressful day in the office, or having a cheeky snort of charlie when they’re out unwinding in town.
Sometimes it seems that only the poor and the underprivileged develop addictions, and all the mental health problems that accompany them. Everyone else just makes ‘a lifestyle choice’.