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Fragile Lives

We arrived at Watford General at 6am on Saturday, fully expecting to be out within a few hours, but 10 hours later I left with more than I had expected.

Once I had gotten over myself and realised that we would be there for some time, I opened my eyes to the world that was before me; a world that I hadn’t witnessed before. Hospitals are full of doctors and nursing trying to sustain life at all costs. I saw numerous elderly patients who looked so vulnerable and fragile, I was bought to tears. There was Ted, who was so skeletal that he couldn’t stand without support. He could barely hear the staff as they tried to explain how he needed to get into a wheelchair. I wondered where his family was, what his story was, and where he would be the next day. I wanted to walk over to his bed and hold his hand, just so that he knew he wasn’t alone.

We moved to another area, and there was a lady lying on a trolley – she was black and blue, covered in bruises all over her face. What had happened to her? Will she make it until tomorrow? Who knows, she was just one of the many elderly people I witnessed throughout the day, nearing the end of their time.

The rest of the day was spent on a ward where I met a Professor, world-renowned for his work into fighting the causes of malaria. A quick google and it became apparent, that the man lying in front of me was pretty special. Born in London and evacuated to the north of England during the second world war – he had become a leading authority in the field of malaria research.  Although he was in and out of consciousness, he was surrounded by a loving family who watched over him, as he fought for every breath.

Next to Wallace was another man, but with a very different reason to be there. He had admitted himself in the early hours after collapsing from a heavy drinking episode. He was in a bad way; shaking from withdrawal. My journey in recovery meant I had seen it all before. I spent 6 weeks in a treatment centre when I was 18, surrounded by people coming off alcoholic and drugs. We often make judgments about people without knowing the dark places that have lead them there, but I can’t imagine anyone would choose to obliterate themselves for fun. Addiction is a serious mental illness that is not a choice, just as an eating disorder isn’t.

As I sat waiting to find out when we could leave, Joe (not his real name) was visited by the consultant, who wasn’t able to see how much pain he was in physically AND mentally. Joe told me that his drinking had been getting out of hand for some time, but didn’t really recognise it was a problem until he tried to write his rent cheque, and couldn’t because his hands were too shaky. He flew home from the US two days before and was drunk when he arrived at the airport. He had been incredibly brave and had told his parents for the first time that he was an alcoholic. That takes some guts. I know just how hard it is to firstly admit to yourself that have a serious problem, but then to admit to those around you, requires strength that’s hard to convey through words. The consultant wanted to send him home because the NHS “policy” is not to treat alcoholism, yet he had already been started on a course of medication to help him withdraw. Joe was frightened and panicked; he didn’t want to go home because he knew he would have to drink to stop the shakes.

I understand the NHS has a limited remit and is amazing when you need emergency care, (we had experienced the wonder of the NHS first hand, with my boyfriend being rushed to have a CT scan) but when it comes to mental health, there seems to be a different attitude. Joe was almost in tears as he pleaded with the consultant not to send him home and let him continue his treatment in hospital. I was so moved by his story, I went and sat on his bed and let him know that I felt his pain. I know how terrifying it is to be at the beginning of your journey; to be scared and in fear of yourself – to not know where to turn or who to reach out to. I was frustrated on his behalf that he had to fight a system to protect him from himself. I have met many people who don’t want help, who are not ready to start recovery, but here there was a young man desperate to not to go back to his addiction, yet a “policy” was potentially going to make this a reality.

As I left the hospital, I was filled with stories and feelings of love, sadness, hope and joy. Everyday all around the world our hospitals are filled with people in their first and last hours of life. We begin our journey into the world as vulnerable, fragile babies, and we depart the in pretty much the same manner. In between we navigate people and places doing the best we can to make something of ourselves, to find love and to leave some sort of footprint behind.

Humans are funny creatures when you think about it. We begin as a blank canvas and then little by little we are moulded and shaped by our circumstances around us. Some are in our control, whilst others are not. We never know where we will land, but one thing is certain – we all have an end time. My day in hospital made me reflect on my own life. My eating disorder bought me close to death, but I hated myself so much that my own life held very little value. Wallace lead a rich life and was in his final moments for no other reason than old age. Joe was at the beginning of his life, but was battling not just the system, but his own internal demons. I met both of them for only a short moment in time, but they both left a mark on my own story. Life holds different meanings for us all at different stages throughout our lives.

I could end by saying something like “remember not to take life for granted,” but this seems too trite and insensitive to those of us suffering with conflicts of the mind. But, it is true that we could all do with a dose of reality every now and again. People all around the world are battling to survive in the harshest of conditions. I am writing this on Christmas Day in the newsroom where I work. I have watched numerous images of people in trying to make their way through the rubble, in the Tsunami that struck Indonesia a few days ago. I am sitting here in the warm, with a cup of tea looking forward to my turkey dinner when I get home – they are merely trying to find their loved ones and salvage any belongings that escaped the disaster. So, cliché or not, I will say…don’t disregard your mind, body and soul as if it is a given. Take a few moments each day to think of others and what you could do (however small) to make someone else’s journey through this bumpy world, a little softer.