Neil and me

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I was discharged by my care-coordinator today.

This is such a casual thing to say. It doesn’t describe at all what it means.

I could try and explain: I worked with this person for three years. I saw him every week, sometimes more.

It’s not enough.

I could illustrate further: He was the only constant thing in my life when everything else was gone. At times he was my only human contact. I have never been more vulnerable in front of a person in my entire life.

It still wouldn’t be enough.

I could try again.

He attended HR meetings with my former employer when they tried to force me to return to work before I was ready and spoke for me.

He sat at endless psychiatrist’ meetings with me.

He was the person I called when I had a breakdown in a shop changing room and cut my arms with a house key because that was the only blade available at the time.

When police told me my rapist would get away with it, he was there.

He was my voice when I didn’t have one.

He was the only unchanging thing, something I could rely on and build my day around.

He carried the weight of my illness when I couldn’t.

How do you even begin to explain a person like that?

And that wouldn’t be enough, so I might as well start over.

When I first met Neil Gastrell, I hadn’t even started my 80 days at the ward. This blog didn’t exist. I hardly even existed at that point.

I should mention that Neil’s name isn’t Neil. That’s not the point of this story.

It’s hard to remember the exact date, that time period is a bit of a blur because I was so ill. I just remember that before I went to hospital there was a man sitting at the opposite side of the table in a meeting with the otherwise female crisis team.

Three years later he’d say my first words to him were ‘I haven’t seen you before.’

I’ll take his word for it, I honestly can’t remember. At the time I was so unwell that the weight of my own head forced me to lie against the table the entire meeting.

I remember telling him that the light at the end of a tunnel was an oncoming train and he laughed.

Usually I’d be told off for a joke like that but he laughed.

That’s what I remembered when I found out that Neil had changed jobs while I had been in hospital and was going to be my care-coordinator. He had already made a good first impression without even realising it.

It was an act of God that I got him as my care-coordinator and nobody can tell me otherwise. He was just the perfect person for me. We had the same dark sense of humour and dislike for conformity.

I never felt like he was some sort of higher authority. He was on my journey with me, not behind me or before me but right by my side, gently guiding me through the woods and carrying the lantern when I wanted to sink to my knees and give up because I was so ill, in pain and exhausted.

Working in care doesn’t just mean going over coping strategies and checking that your client hasn’t topped themselves between appointments. It means caring.

Neil was the one person I could admit to that the hell inside my head was so inconceivably terrifying that I wanted to die.

He didn’t patronise me or start saying things I had heard a million times since getting involved with mental health services.

He was just there.

It wasn’t just the dark times. When the rays of the faraway sun peeked through the leaves, he was there to celebrate it with me.

Getting out of bed. Washing my hair. Going to counselling.

Walking to the hospital. Calling for help when I needed it. Doing the grocery shopping.

Getting a part-time job. Finding the courage to report my rapist to the police. Getting to tell him I got a full-time job.

When I started this blog, I’d read posts out to him in our meetings because it was easier to read than talk. The only natural thing to do now is to write to him. I always knew I was going to write to him when it was time to say goodbye.

Neil Gastrell would deserve poems, songs and lauds.

This is my song to him. Otherwise his heroic deeds, like every other NHS mental health worker’s, are ignored.

I will tell everyone who will listen that Neil Castrell saved my life.

My journey has been mine and I have done the work to be where I am today but I know I would have died without him.

I read the email I wrote to his employer detailing this, offering myself to attend any future meeting if someone is ever required to speak on behalf of his character for any reason whatsoever.

We were in his car and even though he tried to be quick, I saw him wipe off a tear.

Anybody who knows me knows what an act of trust it is for me to be in a man’s car.

This morning I’m talking to him on the phone like I have millions of times before. He always starts and ends our sessions with the same words.

“Oh hi Ida, it’s Neil.”

Someone should have conducted a scientific test. My heart rate could be at 200 but hearing Neil’s voice would instantly calm me down.

He has a lovely warm voice but quite a high pitch for a man, which makes him sound almost gender-less. Especially on the phone.

Angels have been depicted to be without gender for centuries.

“This feels so underwhelming”, he says. “So impersonal. This doesn’t fit the rest of the narrative. I don’t even get to shake your hand.”

I know. Just like saying ‘thank you’ isn’t enough.

No matter how many posts I’d write it wouldn’t be enough.

“I don’t want to get too emotional.” I could hear that he was. “But you have been an absolute pleasure to work with.”

What do you say as departing words to someone who showed you the sun?

“So have you.”

Say it one more time.

“Take care, Ida. All the best.”

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