J I M M O N A C H
At the end of the 60’s we did our degrees, in my case sociology, then whatever we fancied for a bit while we thought about the future. Jobs were readily available, and one could just go travelling if nothing better turned up. For me, there was a spell on psychiatric wards as an assistant nurse, fired up by the writings of Laing, Goffman, Szasz et al. Then a job at London Zoo in pursuit of my lifelong fascination with the natural world. During a quiet lunch hour in the zoo canteen, an advert for a job as social work assistant at the Bethlem & Maudsley Hospitals caught my eye. I gather there was quite a stir amongst my future colleagues when told the new appointment was a man [to an all female department] currently working as a zoo keeper! The people I worked with as clients and colleagues in adult mental health and addiction services soon convinced me that this was the way to go. Masters at the LSE, then the overland route to Australia, and my ‘career’ in social work began in earnest.
I chose Letter opener (poker?) because …
… not long qualified, I was working in one of the newly-created ‘Seebohm’ teams (a community team of generic social workers). We moaned then at the disappearance of the old specialisms; child care, mental health, old age etc. However the more sensible team leaders managed to make the best of a multi-specialist, community focus by trying to ensure allocation of cases recognising the special expertise and interests of the workers. As some-one with a growing concern for matters of mental health, this meant that I could be allocated a family case in which Mum had a long standing history of serious mental illness with repeated and prolonged admissions to psychiatric hospital, whilst her two boys, 13 and 11, were in long term care in [separate] children’s homes. The boys were in very stable situations, and had been doing well for a number of years with staff who knew them well and cared for them greatly. On the whole they wanted me to leave them alone, but make sure Mum was OK. They made this clear at reviews.
There was one extra colleague in the guise of a hospital social worker who still tended to look after the needs of long-term patients both in and out of hospital, but we could and did liaise closely.
Mum could be very violent, neglected herself, and was severely psychotic. Nobody was welcome in her house, very dilapidated on a run-down estate. But, whilst she had accepted for a long time that they were best off in care, she cared intensely for the welfare of her boys, and woe betide the professional who messed with them. My role was therefore to keep a close eye on everyone, and alert colleagues to any problems, helping Mum and boys as I could.
Out of the blue one Christmas, Mum, gruff as ever, appeared at her door. “Yes, I’m fine. Wait there.” She produced a roughly wrapped parcel. “Here, an opener for all them letters you get. Taraa”.
It turned out to be a fire poker! She wanted no thanks, and did not welcome me trying to discuss it later; but I treasured that acknowledgement that even though the system did little to help her, and she had so little, she could still want to say thank you in her own way for someone’s help, who I like to think she saw as caring towards her and her kids. I’m not sure what the rules about accepting gifts might be now, but know there would have been hell to pay if I tried to refuse it. I have the poker (pictured) 40 years on.