So, my first attempt at a blog, where to start..
We all come to crossroads in our lives as part of the privileged world of choices we exist in, and yes, I fully accept that choosing one’s career path is a luxury which the majority of the world’s population do not enjoy, and so I don’t want to get too whimsical or self-pitying here. However, it has to be said, my choice of career was one which left my school teachers and lecturers scratching their heads and asking ‘why?’ and telling me ‘there isn’t much money in it, you know’, both of which, at the time, as a fresh-faced, political, optimistic young woman, meant nothing to me. I thought I could change the world – not the whole world, but the individual worlds of people who were struggling, which is all one ever really wants as a psychologist. Maybe it was a desire to make a difference, maybe it was the result of teenage years spent unwittingly wrangling with low mood, maybe it was the values of a socialist, fierce but compassionate mother, maybe, as a boyfriend put it, my need to take on a caring role was a form of self-validation, or maybe it was just middle-class guilt. Whatever the reason, I launched myself into drugs work like a dwarfed Wonder Woman out of a cannon. And I loved it.
Back then, drug users were a genuinely socially excluded group. They didn’t access healthcare because doctor’s surgeries wouldn’t accept them as patients, and if they did make it through the door, they would cope with health complications rather than go back to be treated like sub-humans. Only people with an address could register with health centres, and people presenting with a bedraggled or unkempt appearance were considered unfit to be seated in waiting rooms with ‘normal’ patients. Women especially did not present asking for help or treatment because the party line was that drug users were not fit to be parents, the substance use instead of the parenting was assessed, the failings instead of the need recorded, and so people struggled on alone, quietly, rather than put themselves up to be judged, criticised, and risk losing their families.
It was a great job, back then, being a drugs worker. You had battles with GPs about the definition of the word ‘healthcare’, you compiled evidence-based arguments to challenge psychiatry’s refusal to treat drug-users, quoting research about the co-morbidity of substance use and mental health issues, you waved the flag of the vulnerable and battered down doors until people listened to the plight (or just got sick of hearing you banging on) and agreed to let you in. It was hard, but god was it rewarding, and the clients were just grateful that for once someone was listening to them and was on their side.
Flash forward eleven years… A Labour Government has been in place, social equality has been a priority, times have been affluent, public sector wages are brought into line with the private sector, and drug users have been given recognition as a vulnerable group – no longer perceived as waster layabouts, some have addressed their issues and gone on to successful careers, breaking down prejudices and presuppositions about substance users, while the others are acknowledged as probably having had experienced childhood abuse and have therefore developed poor coping strategies, needing intensive rehabilitation if they are to address their issues, and so are sympathetically cradled by the system.
But hang on, there’s a global recession, funds are being cut, and the luxurious ten years of the Drug Strategy seem long behind us. So now drugs services start pitching themselves against each other for funding, long-existing relationships become strained, GPs start to wonder if it’s really worth having this type of patient in their surgeries if the money is drying up..
But worst, by far the worst, change to the landscape of the role of a drugs worker comes from the client group themselves, the very people you went into this role to help. They too have had a few comfortable years – now not only able to access healthcare, training opportunities, support with parenting, housing and finances, but with an ever-growing, burning sense of entitlement. They’ve had their legal aid, they know their rights, they’ve learned to exploit every loophole in every system, and they are used to being fast-tracked to the front of every queue because they are IN NEED. And they see ME, their drugs worker, their advocate, their bodyguard against inequity, as their root to a happy life, their guarantee that never again will they be poor, homeless, badly-treated or in need.
Now the twenty year old me might have been willing to attempt to fulfil that impossible role – but by now I have faced my own fair share of adversity, been on my arse a few times as we all are as humans, and learned to pick myself up, dust myself down, and get on with what needs to be done. And so regular attempts at emotional black-mail to the cry of ‘if you don’t get me some benzos so I can sleep / sort out my rent arrears so I don’t get evicted / tell Social Services I’ve stopped using so I don’t lose my kids / have me a new prescription at the pharmacy by 12 with an increase to my methadone dose, it’s YOUR fault I’m going to use’ wore thin and, frankly, I started to find the lack of personal responsibility and dependence of the State tedious, irritating and, at times, downright infuriating.
And so here I am, stuck in a miserable, unrewarding, emotionally-exhausting job, wondering where the last eleven years have gone, unsure if I have the skills to transfer to another profession which, likely as not, will also be subject to cut-backs and job losses, and really much preferring the idea of disappearing up a mountain alone, never again to address humankind. You don’t see the best in life, working as a drugs worker, and I don’t want to keep seeing the world like the big pile of shit I have been for so many years. I used to be an optimist, for god’s sake! Now it seems I am unshockable, unscarable, and have the emotional range of Oscar the Grouch.
The English language was always my first love, sadly neglected over the years of personal austerity, and life events and puzzles started taking me back to it during periods of lone reflection. And I thought to myself – I’ve paid my dues, I’ve done my time, and I’ve got enough material to start writing now and never stop.. And so here begineth the attempted transformation from drugs worker to writer…