Leah could barely speak. She was hunched into the psychogeriatric unit’s plastic-coated armchair and trapped in an age-old family dilemma: speak her mind and be rejected; hold her tongue and be scorned. Either way life was not worth living and Leah was there because she had tried, at 73, to end it.
Yet somehow, she had kept hidden away a continuing hope for peace. With no notion of how it might be found she had touched the edge of despair sometimes clinging on only by her fingernails. Through her barely audible voice she declared that she did not know how she had kept going over the past few months; or even years, especially the 10 years since John, her husband, had died.
Somewhere along the line I asked Leah how she had found the strength to keep going for these 10 years and she recounted a number of ‘mental health’ crises that she had managed to survive. She said she’d always had to be strong but didn’t think she could keep it up. I asked when did she first realise that she had to be strong and Leah told this story.
“I was left on the doorstep of an orphanage when I was about a week old so the nuns took me in and brought me up. There was one nice nun but she had to be careful because they weren’t allowed to show us any love. It was a hard place and even when I was little I could see horrible things happening to them. It must have been when I was two and I realised that if I didn’t fight I’d die. There was never enough food so if you wanted to eat you had to fight for it. I got punched, kicked, pushed and everything but I got my food. Most of the time anyway. That was how it was: the survival of the fittest and now look at me!”
Leah had suffered from bouts of depression all her life and had to a large extent been ‘written off’ by professionals as “too damaged” by her early experiences to expect to lead a full and satisfactory life. Indeed, she had been warned against feeling too happy because it was likely to bring on another depression. How could this other history be unseen, a two-year old with the insight and survival skills that most would be lucky to find in their adolescence?
Later I returned to the theme of Leah’s ability to hang on. “The cat” she said, “the cat has no-one else, so he helps”. Purr-cell, as the cat was called, was a stray she had taken in and was all she had left in her life. Asked how Purr-cell would know that she had found peace Leah said he wouldn’t know because she always put on a brave face for him. “He can’t help being abandoned and I think at least someone can end their life happily so I don’t trouble him with my worries” “Have you always been a caring person?” I asked. “Yes” she replied “And people tell me I’m too caring and should look after myself more.” This is how we do it. We ‘professionals’. We see a person in difficulty and do everything we can to shape their lives to fit that moment, to define the person as a product of the difficulty and in doing so help create lives that can barely be lived. We even turn one of the most powerful survival skills, caring for others, into a pathology and so close another door on hope.
“When did you first realise that you had the gift of caring?” I asked. “Oh, that would have been when I was seven” Leah replied. “When I was seven I began to realise that children were dying. We’d have a dose of the measles, or even just a bad cold going around and another child would die. We were told that it was God’s will and if they’d been good they’d be in Heaven feeling sorry for us down here. But if they’d been bad they would be burning in hell for ever and ever. But I knew it was the ones who weren’t getting the food. So, I looked at the little ones, and thought ‘Should I let them get on with it like I had to or shall I look after them and I decided I’d look after them so I made sure they always got their food.”
If life was a building, these foundations could support a palace and Leah went on to do just that. Along the way she told another story. Like many survivors of oppression, she had a keen sense of humour and when I asked when she first realised that this was one of her strengths. “One of the games we used to play, me and the other little mischief, was on Wednesdays. Wednesdays were silent days. The nuns weren’t allowed to speak so we weren’t supposed to either so me and my friend used to hide behind a curtain and when a nun came by we’d jump out and frighten her so she’d call out. We would run off laughing and she couldn’t do anything because she wasn’t allowed to speak. We’d always be whipped the next day but it didn’t stop us! We called it
‘Break the Silence!’ ”