For the past four weeks or so I have been struggling to write a post about the nature of friendship and am still struggling with it. Facebook had a viral post wherein you asked your friends to send you a number and then, referencing the number, you wrote on your wall what you thought of them. I was delighted by all the nice things people had to say about me (and I didn’t even need to pay them :-)) but I was deeply touched by two posts in particular. It is about these which I am struggling to write – it’s important to me and may have resonance with others. However, something came along which was way more important …
I am honoured to be part of a group called the MadUp. I am not mentally ill myself, but eccentric enough to consider myself Mentally Interesting. Through the actions and words of a brave young girl who came to work for me a number of years ago, I came into contact with a group of people who are mentally ill. They are also loving and kind, creative and funny, generous and beautiful and through facebook we have been able to lift each other, laugh with each other (and oh blimey, they make me giggle sometimes so much I can hardly bear it) and live part of our lives with each other. I also had the opportunity of meeting some of them at a (self-described) MadUp, in August last year, which was, in the main, frowned on by various counsellors and psychologists, described as “triggering” and injurious to health and actually was one of the most life-affirming, loving, sad-in-parts, hilarious-in-others and amazing evening (it started earlier in the day but I was at a fair so joined later).
I am slow to make friends normally. Although I appear extrovert I am actually quite shy and the thought of a night in a pub with a group of people I did not really know sounded in some ways like my idea of hell. But I went anyway (a big hat always gives me a bit of confidence) and had an amazing time. I made a whole new set of friends and I came away slightly dazed at how easy it all was. In retrospect, it was abundantly clear that the reason I felt right at home was that no-one was judging anyone. No-one stood there looking at how I was dressed or what I was drinking or how much money I was earning. No-one cared a fig that I was unemployed or nervous or sweaty from a day working outside. No-one gave a hoot that I appeared a bit OTT (wearing a big hat and snogging a girl isn’t always the best introduction to an evening like this, but what the heck!)
And since then, I have made some excellent friends. Mostly on FB although they are all people who I will see in “real” life too, given half a chance (distances preclude face-to-face contact in most cases). I have been educated about the battles that people who are mentally ill face; the day-to-day dirge of struggling to make ends meet; swapped easy and cost-effective recipes; talked about places to shop for cheap presents; been buoyed up by their support when things have been rough in my life and hopefully given the same support back. They also gave me the courage I needed to start this blog, without them, it would not have seen the light of day.
Over the past few weeks, I have been made aware of the coalition government’s changes to benefits given to the mentally ill and how they are going to have to go through hoops and jumps to “prove” an illness that is by its very nature quite subjective and erratic.
Now, there is a great deal of abuse of benefits – most people I know, know someone who is scamming the system in a big way. And I abhor these people because they make it harder for those who are in genuine need to claim what they need to survive. They also make the ordeal of claiming benefits tainted (I know, because I have had to now start claiming benefits and I cannot tell you what a lowlife failure I felt the first time I went to sign on).
When I was very ill over Christmas with flu, two people in particular kept me rolling with laughter through the fevers, through the pain, through the coughing and through the weird symptoms … one of them was a lady called Ali Quant. She is mentally ill. She relies on various benefits to keep her housed and fed. She is also hilarious, loving, kind, the survivor of terrible domestic abuse and someone who has been homeless and destitute. The new policy means that she faces losing the very benefits that keep a roof over her head and food in her belly. They are not a lot but they mean survival for her.
She posted this on her blog a few nights ago. Go read it and come back to this page when you are done.
Now, Ali is not alarmist. She would rather make light of something dark; she has an almost irrepressible sense of humour and is slowly but surely making her way from the dark hell that is mental illness into the light. I knew immediately that this was not just a cry for help. It was a railing against the government in which we had placed so much hope; a government that should have led us out of the spin of nu-Labour into a solid future. Instead, it has continued to erode our personal freedoms; it has increased VAT so that any families on the breadline are easily pushed under it; it has declared cuts in police and fire brigade funding; closed an essential forensics lab and slashed through the public sector budgets with no plan to effectively save money; except to encourage skilled and experienced staff to go on early retirement (but manages to keep all those expensive private management consultants on board).
Now … now it has targeted those people in our country who are least able to fight back – those scraping a living, battling with the long road that is recovery of mental illness. Ali is not the only one who is faced with this decision; there are thousands like her, waiting to be plunged into the abyss.
Besides my love and care, there is not a lot I can do to help Ali and others like her. In the end, a fellow blogger, the amazing Phil Groom came up with a sensible plan … what we are going to do is give £5 a month to a central fund. If we can find 200 people to do this, it will raise £12,000 a year. The money will go to those who lose their mental illness benefits income as a result of the cuts and stop us losing Ali in the first instance and others who face the same uphill and insurmountable (without financial assistance) struggle to survive and heal. Those who cannot afford to contribute can still offer their support and care. Please, if you can, spare us £5 out of your paycheck. It will go towards saving Ali and others like her. The facebook campaign is here http://on.fb.me/ihp7or.
PS the pole-dancing boots are mine. They hurt like hell after a day spent in Croydon. How anyone can dance in such horrors is a miracle.