Today I pile on warm clothes
push toes into boots
hands into gloves
fix helmet on head
put pressure on one pedal after another
with grey treads turning on icy tarmac
in reflective waistcoat
I propel myself down the hill
looking like a wasp on wheels
Feet freeze into tennis balls
wind works its way in
it’s an easy ride
but I’m glad to arrive
and I do it all over again
this time lungs stretch and scream
at the incline that challenges me to stop
but thoughts of home and rest
are the pull
Pushing, pushing, pushing
keeps the wheels turning
until I arrive at the gate
maybe a bit late
hair wet with sweat
pedals finally still
Turning the corner
the familiar fields and shelters
come into view
Open outlook, clear and calm
this is the place where past harms
Friends old and new
graze on at steady pace
it’s never too late for needs to be met
just a turn of fate
The familiar fields and shelters
will come into view again next year
the way ahead may not always be calm and clear
but we can always come back to this place
And marvel at the donkeys
stroke the pony’s mane
it’s always different every year
and every year, just wonderfully
It’s around a year ago today that my friend, Rosemary, passed away. She was 49.
I wrote the above poem after we had been to visit an animal sanctuary in Norfolk. Rosemary had introduced me to the animal sanctuary because she had adopted a Shetland pony who lives there, Sampson.
I suggested we go and visit which we did, and revisited a few times more, before it got to the point where it was too much for Rosemary. She found it too tiring, she said, which it was. It was too tiring because she smoked heavily and was an alcoholic.
Rosemary had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in her early 20s. While she never opened up much about her past or about anything emotional at all really – I was told in no uncertain terms to ‘leave it’ if I prompted her in any way – she did tell me once that the psychiatrist who diagnosed her told her that she would never work again.
That may well have been the case in the conventional sense of what constitutes ‘work’ in our society, but if it was unlikely that she would ever do regular paid work again, that prognosis could have been presented differently, to give Rosemary a sense of hope of having a fulfilling life, even if not the life that she would have been hoping for as a young woman in her 20s at that time.
In recent times there has been a lot of talk about mental health and a lot of awareness raising in the media, but when it fundamentally comes down to it, has anything significantly changed to ensure that people who have diagnoses of extreme forms of mental illness can find some way of identifying themselves with a meaningful role, a sense of positive purpose, in the world? I’m not convinced that it has.
Some people are fortunate to be partners, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, which can help to offset the stigma and isolation that accompanies their condition, but many – like Rosemary – do not.
Rosemary was not an easy person to get on with. She pushed people away, more often than not, and did make lifestyle choices – however hard and judgmental that sounds – that led to her limiting her own life in many ways. But I have often wondered how different it would have been if, when given that diagnosis of schizophrenia all those years ago, she had been told about all the things that she could keep doing – and all the support that she would get in the process – to help her feel good about herself and her life, whatever form or path that took.
Having extra support at a critical time can make all the difference between us, on the one hand finding our own strength and resolve to come through with a sense of purpose and, on the other hand, wavering and floundering and – at best – just not drowning.
At times Rosemary pushed my patience to the limits and then some (and she knew it!), but I could only try and imagine what difficulties she went through every day. Somehow, through that diagnosis, and prognosis, and the position it placed her in, in the world, all her intelligence, her good memory, her dark sense of humour, her creativity, her kindness to animals and sense of fair play got devalued, not least by her.
Thank you for the friendship that we shared Rosemary. For the times we spent at nature reserves and animal sanctuaries, the concerts we went to and the smile that you used to greet me with.
I hope you are now flying high, with the birds.