SW Newsletter #48

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  1. his determination to remain emotionally and spiritually independent  “Nothing they do can humiliate me. I alone can humiliate myself. Once I had absorbed that idea, nothing — not searches, not punishments . . . not even several attempts to force-feed me through the rectum during an extended hunger strike — could deprive me of my self-respect.”
  2. learning Hebrew through an extraordinary communication system (via the toilet) with the prisoner in the next cell
  3. continuously exercising his mind with maths and chess conundrums (he’s very brilliant as well as heroic)

Despite (or in some ways because of) the extremity of Sharansky’s horrific experiences, there are important implications for those of us on locked wards, whether or not in forensic services.

The most intangible, elusive aspect of ourselves, our spirituality, can be the most important for our sanity, including bolstering our self-esteem. Self-esteem. Seriously elusive among most inpatients. But even incremental gains are invaluable in achieving our recovery.

Although aspects of our minds are incredibly wonky while we’re in hospital, having mental stimulation is usually a vital part of dewonkifying.

We rely on others in the same situation not only for company and support, but often to learn from each other.

I’d like to be able to draw out zillions of relevant lessons from Sharansky’s autobiography, characteristically called Fear No Evil. But the nearest I’ve got to his writings was reading the wedding invitation.

Because of the war, I read Israel’s one English daily newspaper, the Jerusalem Post, most days. I wish it were as impressively objective and rigorous as the news on the excellent Arabic TV station al-Jazeera, but at least I got updated about one Israeli perspective.

It’s good to have a range of newspapers on a ward, to allow for differences in perspective, literacy etc.

My most ineffectual, pathetic (non) reading was of street signs, restaurant names etc in Arabic. Tragically my one term of Arabic wasn’t enough to sustain being able to distinguish one beautiful calligraphic squiggle from the near identical next.

Learning needs to be repeated, reinforced, practiced – and manageable.

Lots of you will have read the superb The Memory-Keeper’s Daughter. It’s a beautifully written story, whose mainly off-screen central character has Down’s Syndrome, while the subtext is all about secrets, and the cumulative chaos these can cause. My two foster sons have Williams Syndrome, broadly comparable to Downs Syndrome. The novel inevitably made me relieved about how attitudes to and experiences of people with learning disabilities have vastly improved in the decades since the novel’s setting. In terms of inpatient care:

Mistakes or inappropriate practice are inevitable. However hard it is to admit these, covering up is much worse. There’ll never be a no-blame culture in the NHS (rightly), but a low-blame culture allows for positive risk-taking, innovation, more sleep at nights – and honesty.

And finally, I read a book about reading books, Nick Hornby’s The Complete Polysyllabic Spree. This is a compilation of his articles in The Believer [American, you better believe it] magazine, which all have to consist of only favourable reviews. No sniping. The editors believe that there are enough snide reviews out there. The similarities between these and Star Wards blares out, with the insignificant difference being the distance between that author and this one.

OK, so I could drag out some tenuous link with inpatient care from thinking about even squeezy ketchup bottles, but there really are a lot of relevant issues among the stuff Hornby reads and his interweaving commentary. It would be a chutzpah (cheek) to add commentary to Hornby’s commentary, and the following speak for themselves.

Hornby gives an (apocryphal?) tale of Prince (and still called the royal person before the subsequent artist…), whose professional standards had his band members saying they didn’t have the technical abilities to perform Prince’s vision. “Prince would push them and push them until they mastered it, and then, just when they were feeling pleased with themselves for accomplishing something they didn’t know they had the capacity for, he’d tell them the dance steps he needed to accompany the music.”

But being, or appearing to be, too successful can also be a problem. Hornby points out that effusive book reviews can raise expectations impossibly high, while simplicity can be best, at least in relation to his home library: “I personally find that for domestic purposes, the Trivial Pursuit system works better than Dewey”.

Returning to the literacy issue, I was gob-smacked to read that 40% of the population never do this “with any books at all, of whatever kind.” They’re missing out on humorous gems like the following from Haikus for Jews, a Haiku being a 17 syllable Zen poem. (And a Jew being someone who likes a choice of 17 different cheesecakes.)

Middle East peace talks –

the parties reach agreement.

Fallafel for lunch

Inshala. (God willing, in Arabic)

Hallevai (We wish, in Hebrew)