Jo McFarlane's journey to recovery

Iriss.fm, Episode 205
Published on 28 Jun 2018

Building the future: shaping our social work identity newly qualified social worker conference was held on 31 May 2018 in Edinburgh. Delivered  with the University of Edinburgh (in partnership with the Higher Education Heads of Social Work Group), Iriss, Scottish Social Services Council, the Scottish Association of Social Workers, Social Work Scotland and the Scottish Government, it provided an opportunity for newly qualified social workers to come together to connect and reconnect. 

In this episode, we hear the moving story of Jo McFarlane, a writer, poet and public speaker. She provides an engaging story of her early life and journey to recovery, peppered with powerful, and often comic, poetry. 

More about Jo and her books.

Date of recording
Audio transcript

Building the future: shaping our social work identity newly qualified social worker conference was held on 31 May 2018 in Edinburgh. Delivered with the University of Edinburgh (in partnership with the Higher Education Heads of Social Work Group), Iriss, Scottish Social Services Council, the Scottish Association of Social Workers, Social Work Scotland and the Scottish Government, it provided an opportunity for newly qualified social workers to come together to connect and reconnect. In this episode, we hear the moving story of Jo McFarlane, a writer, poet and public speaker. She provides an engaging story of her early life and journey to recovery, peppered with powerful, and often comic, poetry.

You're listening to Iriss.fm Scotland's Social Services podcast. 

JM Hi there everybody, thanks so much for staying behind and risking getting a parking ticket. I hope you've all enjoyed today's conference as much as I have. It's been a really inspirational day with really hopeful messages for you to take forward and I hope you all feel as is has been reiterated throughout the day in which I would add to that it's a really honourable profession that you're being initiated into. One in which you have the capacity and the potential to make a massive positive difference to people's lives, for your clients for your colleagues through being a leader and an inspiration but also above all of course, not least for yourselves. Well you'll probably have guessed by now that I'm not a social worker, the pink hat's a bit of a give away … or maybe some of you have got pink hats, I don't know? My interest in social work stems from my lived experience of having used psychiatric services for 28 years including 17 years of MHO support but also from having been denied or overlooked social work support when it might have made the biggest difference in my childhood. So, I'm going to tell you a bit of my story because I think it demonstrates not just how pivotal your input will be but also the lasting impact that you will make and also the aspects of your intervention which will make the biggest difference, the latter of which can be summed up in just 3 words: relationships, relationships, relationships. At the risk of sounding like Tony Blair, why am I so emphatic on that point? Because my experience, which will be typical of many clients your likely to come across, demonstrates that the healing restorative power of positive caring relationships is inversely proportionate to the deep damage that is done in early childhood through abusive, neglectful, dysfunctional relationships particularly within the family as is so often the case in nature, the poison is implicit in the cure but of course, I'm not telling you anything that you don't already know. You're training, your practice placements, life and work experience so far will have impressed upon you far more than anything that I could say in half an hour how pivotal early life relationships are to our ongoing development and subsequent life opportunities and experience. You will also know of course that harm, hurt and hate can also be repaired through love and I make no apologies for using the word love in the context of the support that you will provide, for love is what your clients most will need and will look to you to fulfil the deficit. So, it was really very validating to hear that really moving letter that was read out earlier on from that young man to his social worker in which he explicitly talks about love too. So, I'm going to demonstrate this point about relationships being at the centre and the most important thing that you will do by telling my story through poems and I apologise in advance to those of you who detest poetry which is most of the population I've found or maybe find it uncomfortable but I like to use poems because I feel that they kind of get past the intellect and speak straight to the heart, that's the idea anyway. 

So, with that lengthy preamble, I shall begin:

I was born here in Edinburgh in the sleazy '70's when male chauvinism and sexual abuse were as much a feature of the social fabric as the lurid wallpaper that adorned our homes, perhaps things haven't changed that much in the intervening years. My father was the consummate authoritarian, he ruled by the knuckle and the belt and the punishments he inflicted were as random and unpredictable as they were frequent and feared. Nor could my mum protect me and my 3 older siblings, as a victim of my father's violence herself and also suffering from mental illness and the cognitive and emotional incapacities of a young child my mum would now be deemed a vulnerable adult, but this wasn't picked up at the time and so we all suffered from the lack of care that she might have received. I'm not going to list all the all adverse experiences of my childhood but among the most damaging was the sexual abuse that I suffered at the hands of my father and my older brother which was accepted and normalised within the family even to an extent I have to say, facilitated by my mum who I believe needed to use me as a shield to protect herself from my dad. My mum looked to me to be her mother and I was so traumatised by the burden of emotionally caring for her in the wake of her frequent suicide attempts and disappearances and hospital admissions that I was hunched with the cares of an adult before I even started school. I've still got a bit of a hunch, I know I shouldn't do that self-deprecating, give me a laugh, I need to hear. Sorry about that, thank you. My partner's always telling me "No self-deprecating message, it's not a good example." Anyway, I'm going to share a poem at this point which is about dissociation which as you'll know is a common feature of trauma, it's called The Girl who Couldn't Fly. 

What she wanted was for memories to go away
To crawl back into their caves, be washed out to see
How many incarnations could she suffer of the times her Father beat her Mother
Of zips being ripped, and cold, cold hands
The empty space she floated to, the coming to, 
And the aftermath of foetal hours with only the thumb suck and the rocking to comfort her
What she wanted was to be a star
Out there somewhere in the midnight sky, waiting for the sun to come
And hands to warm like weeping angels 

That longing for an angel or protective guardian who would rescue me has been a pervasive feature of my life and I believe this could be said for most, if not all people who come from deeply traumatised backgrounds. There is often masked by symptomology diagnoses, suicide attempts, addiction and all the other self-destructive paths our lives may take to keep the pain at bay. Those desperate cries for help, that often go unheard, ignored or even punished whether at the hands of psychiatry, the criminal justice system, life on the streets, or wherever else we might get picked up or rejected. So, having felt invisible and insignificant throughout my childhood I finally cracked at the age of 17 and I was picked up by adolescent mental health services, the young peoples unit as it was then known. Being listened to for the first time was an alien and intoxicating experience and it was not long before I had descended down into the slippery slope of dependence and institutionalisation. At that time, I spent 4 years in hospital, most of it detained, and there I experienced the very best and worst of care. I was a difficult patient to like and to work with, I was rebellious, angry and self-sabotaging but much of my behaviour was fuelled by the need to feel held and loved unconditionally, to throw my very worst at the staff and still have it proved to me that they wouldn't abandon me, however worthless and despicable I felt. That's what this next poem is about, it's called In Loco Parentis:
I didn't ask you to come in to my life with your size 999's
I couldn't understand why you would go to such lengths to keep me safe
When up to then I had been invisible, your imprint was inevitable, indelible
I morphed over night into the infant I had never been allowed to be
The delinquent who paraded her distress in tantrum and self-sabotage 
You allowed me to regress and gave me the boundaries every child needs to grow
I grew and grew into a monster
Still you cared for me, allowed me to let go
When it was time to fly the next, my wings refused to open
But you had to let me go
The journey to womanhood spans a lifetime and the girl remains in fledgling form within
Growth takes many guises, many layers of incarnation but the starting point is always to be held.

One of the people who held me with great tenderness at that time in spite of my difficult behaviour was my keyworker, Donald. I didn't like men much, understandably, because they represented the excesses of control and betrayal I'd always known from my father but it's a measure of Donald's subtlety and his decency that he was able to win me over and to gain my trust. So, this next poem is for Donald:

He was the gentlest man that I'd ever met
A doe-eyed bear, a friendly giant with a mop of reddish hair
He had a lightness to his touch, such kindness and that playful smile
He cared for me a while till I was wise enough and healed enough to recognise the possibility of goodness in a man
All the harm done by my father, Donald bore it on his shoulders 
He forgave my feral anger and understood the steady hand I need which would guide me through the storm
He respected me enough to hold a distance and yet his presence was the closest to a father's love I'd ever known
He was an anchor in the shipwreck and the pattern for all decent men to come

My deepest longing however was for the strong protective mother I had never had and this came some years later when I was transferred to the adult ward, in the shape of the woman who would come to be my social worker and MHO for the next 17 years. Her name was Heather and she was something of a legend in the hospital community because she fought so tenaciously for all her clients and she worked tirelessly to meet our needs. Everybody wanted Heather to be their social worker, but she was a rare commodity so selflessly devoted to her job and so passionate in her defence of the right to form meaningful relationships with her clients that everybody whose life she touched was irrevocably changed for the better. I was no exception to this, but I have to say that at the time, I didn't always appreciate the lengths that Heather went to, to protect me and we often came to blows when I was sectioned. But ultimately, I was and remain very grateful to Heather and I would even go as far to say that she saved my life on several occasions. Of all the people who I had the good fortune to be cared for by, Heather was the kindest and the best. She epitomised everything positive that social work should represent and her defence of the vulnerable, her tolerance of the detestable and her patience, courage and forbearance to walk alongside the casualties of abuse and cruelty at her most troubled times. 

Sadly, Heather passed away in 2012, having only enjoyed 2 years of her retirement, but her memory lives on as a beacon of care for hundreds of people that she worked with and I would commend her to you as someone as who's example you might want to be inspired by. Someone who walked the road less travelled, who put her heart on the line, who risked intimacy and dared to make a lasting difference. So, if you'll indulge me, I'd like to share a poem that I was asked by her colleagues to write for her funeral and to read out at the funeral. It's called Heather:

Tending souls, you were, the day they gave out gifts
As if each one bestowed on you was surplus to requirements
All you cared about was everybody else
Your life grew meaning from the happiness of others
If a man was sick of life, you'd heal him with a kindly word
Or in a woman's razor blade distress, you'd bandage up the child
Nothing too much trouble for you, no one too far gone 
You understood that people needed time to grow 
And you gave your time so freely as if the currency of love was endless in supply
You spent each drop of goodness being a mother to the orphaned and a friend to those in need
Now the taps run dry of tear, your hanky put to bed but still we feel your presence in the comfort of a memory
Laughter in the joy of something said
You wore your virtue lightly, never seeking recognition, never counting up the cost 
But everybody loved you whom you touched
And all of so saddened by your loss

Well, now that I've shared that intimate eulogy with you, I want to say a bit, I was talking to Avril and Viv about this and the email correspondence we had prior to the conference about the horns and halo effect, namely that tendency by people who've been hurt to oscillate between extremes of worshipping and vilifying people who care for us and it's likely to be something that you'll come across if you haven't already done so. Anyone relate to that kind of horns and halo thing? Yeah, and I think it can make social workers uncomfortable and suspicious even about accepting praise because let's face it your profession is usually the first to be pilloried and scapegoated when anything goes wrong and we can add to that the reticence or modesty to accept, or even give praise that is so endemic in the Scottish psyche. I should point out at this juncture that I'm half Italian, so effusiveness comes a little more naturally to me as well as waving my hands around, terrible cultural stereotype. Anyway, but if you put yourself in the client's shoes, why wouldn't we want to express our gratitude to people who have meant so much to us, in some cases perhaps saved our lives? And the flip side of that, given that the stakes are so high, why wouldn't we complain when the people we rely on, may have hurt us and let us down? Surely the mark of a healthy functioning relationship is being assertive enough to say how we really feel and feeling safe enough to say how we feel so, from that point of view any feedback is good and you should always welcome it and learn from it however difficult it may be to hear. But you also need to consider what is not being said and also to read between the lines of that which is, always there is a power dynamic at play, an imbalance there which can interfere with authenticity and people saying how they really feel because your clients need you they may fall into pleasing or appeasing you. Now, where I come from the psychiatric system, that's often judged as being manipulative but actually it's about survival, pure and simple and we really ought to view the will and the means to survive as a healthy human instinct rather than condemning. So, the correct response to gratitude I would suggest is to graciously accept and yet not to take it for granted. There are many other dichotomies and dilemmas that you're likely to encounter in your daily practice, chief among them perhaps, how do you reconcile your statutory power with your duty of care? Or in other words to keep compassion at the centre of compulsion. They should in an ideal world naturally converge but as you know the reality is somewhat more complex as well as having the power to intervene in people's lives sometimes to exert control which they will resist, you also have the power to walk away and for people who have only known abandonment and rejection in their lives, that perhaps is the most dangerous thing you can do because it imbues your actions with all the power that comes from reminding them and really bring alive for them those earlier pain rejections and betrayals that they may have experienced. So, it's really a difficult role to fulfil that and I think being able to walk away and say no is sometimes even harder than providing a service for that reason and just to be aware of that. Being a social worker, I think is not for the fainthearted but I would suggest that if you put your heart and soul into it, your conscience will guide you and most of the time you will get it right. I'm sure there will be days when you feel you're walking an impossible tightrope, damned if you do, damned if you don't and always in such a highly charged role there is the risk of burn out which is why what we were hearing earlier from Martin and others, that point about selfcare is so important. Not to mention of course, related to that, apathy and disillusionment, you work in a context of diminishing resources and increasing managerial constraints, the culture is not as favourable as once it was to committing wholeheartedly to your clients, so perhaps the examples of longevity and tenderness that I've given you are a million miles from the kind of relationships that you're allowed to enter into with your clients, I hope that's not the case. Perhaps much as you want to, you feel powerless to make a difference in your role. Well I'm not a practitioner and I've never had such dilemmas to face so there are no pithy words of wisdom that I can offer but I do know what it's like to be on the receiving end of cynicism and of the converge people who genuinely care and are trying to do their very best for me. Clients don't need social workers to be perfect or all powerful, we need you to be human and humane. We also need you to reflect on your practice day in, day out to question everything you do and above all to ask us what we need, to listen to our stories as you've been doing with me today and to honour us with the gift of your presence which is in many ways the most transformative thing you can do for a person, even if there's nothing else. So, to reiterate that point, I'd like to share a poem called Carrie, all my poems have got people's names, not very original.

When I'm sad, I think of you
The little things you say and do to comfort me 
Leaning forward in your chair
You strain to hear each word, so difficult to say
You reassure me that I'm going to be okay
Your voice so gentle yet so strong and wise, the affirmation that you're there for me no matter what
The way you say my name like you've known me forever
Want to know me better to understand the pain that's brought me to your door
I feel so safe in your hands, safer than I've ever felt before
Because I trust you care about me in the little things you say and do
And the love I feel for you, the deep respect and gratitude 
Can never bee expressed in words that feel enough
However, many thankyous that I say 
Cannot convey the awesome kindness in your voice 
The lovely person that you are
The way you've healed me, more than you will ever know

Okay, I may have embarrassed you, you red faces in the room. I think that's enough kind hearts and coronets for now. So, I'm going to lighten the mood a bit now and share a couple of, dare I say humorous poems. My attempt at humour but usually they fall flat on their face so, I'll try them out on you and see how you go with them. So neither of these poems, these 2 poems, neither of them are about social workers but about psychiatrists. So, I should neatly contrive to fit them into one of the conference themes for the day, namely shaping your social work identity or in other words, not being like this guy! This is called, Doctor Deficit:

The first thing he said, when I walked in the door
So, what can I do you for?
Then I poured out my heart on my quivering sleeve
While he kept his eyes fixed on his notes
Scribbled with his pen, nodding every now and then 
In cursory fashion to hurry me up
Then interrupting me in full flow, indicated it was time to go
He stood up, cleared his throat and said
So, glad you're feeling better
I wondered, has he listened to a single word I've said
The palpitations, sleepless nights, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts
We can reduce your Chlorpromazine to once a day
And I don't think I'll be needing to see you again
The proverbial boot up the bum delivered
My last hope of a safety net now severed
I thanked the bastard for his time
Then left the building traumatised and headed home
And sat all evening staring into space
Conjured up his cold, cold eyes 
His lifeless face and came to the only sane conclusion
I may have a personality disorder but at least I've got a personality

Thank you, thank you. Thank you.

I'm sure it's nice to know that yours isn't the only profession that gets scapegoated. But psychiatrists get paid an awful lot more money than you, so yeah, they deserve to be the butt of the joke, don't they? And talking of butt's, another neat little Segway this, here is what happened when I attempted to show this next psychiatrist, a lovely guy who happened to be 6 foot 6. You can imagine what we looked like next to each other and this is what happened when I attempted to show him who wore the pants in our relationship. Larger than Life:

Professor E had an enviable sense of humour
Many was the laugh we had over a particularly convoluted suicide attempt
Overdosing on apple pips was a tad silly perhaps 
Or my effort to escape in slippers and pyjamas 
Why is there never a high-speed train to Timbuctoo when you need one?
He also found it quite amusing when I chased him round the ward with a plastic sword
Dressed as Don Quijote de la Mancha
Though he did draw the line at me following him into the loo
One Christmas Eve, I presented him with 
A leopard skin thong!
Triumphantly adding that's to say thank you for the increase to my Lithium
This drew a sharp intake of breath from the blushing medical student at his side
Prof E studied the garment for an interminable moment
One eyebrow raised, as though checking for stains
Extra Large, he said at last
How thoughtful of you to get it in my size

He was a really cool guy, nothing ever fazed him. Anyway, well it would be gratuitous of me … I'll put this down. That's been some places with me, I tell you and no, there are no stains, he didn't wear it. So, it would be gratuitous of me to mock psychiatrists without there being an obvious learning point to derive from such anecdotes. So, if you must take anything away from that, remember in the context of integrated health and social care that you should always be the bigger guy and oh don't get caught with your pants down. So, I'm almost at the end of my presentation and there is much more that could be said to fill in the blanks of my checkered in auspicious life. I have to say that things got worse before they got better, you know the road to recovery was a slow and torturous one, punctuated by many more hospital admissions and suicide attempts, much more serious than overdosing on apple pips. And you know I probably shouldn't have survived but I'm eternally grateful, thankful to have done so. Above all there were some key people in my life, in social work and in other professions who held onto the hope for me that things would get better when I couldn't see it myself. Who committed to me, who believed in me, invested in me and got me to where I am today, a survivor and a lover of life. So, I'd like to dedicate my final poem to all of those recover champions, those change agents in my life but I'd also like to dedicate it to each and every one of you in gratitude and anticipation of the wonderful social workers I know you already are or are soon to become. That was quite manipulative of me, wasn't it? No pressure, okay, I hope this poem is also a reminder that the goal of social work practice isn't to keep your clients dependent on you but to enable them to take back control of their own lives, to grow and to thrive. This is called Empowerment:

Getting stronger everyday
Having the courage to say, I know in my heart what works for me
Trusting my instincts, freeing my voice
Seeing that I have a choice in how I want my life to be
Asking you to help me make it possible
Believing that together we can make it probable
Remembering I'm capable, responsible and learning all the time
That wisdom dwells within me, even in this cliché'd rhyme.
Because I know to reinvent my path 
Means learning from the past 
But what is broken, can be healed
And what I feel today can change tomorrow
But the core of me has power to endure through all the trials that come my way
I'm asking you to put your faith in me
So, we can walk this road together
Equal partners, searching for the answers 
As we grow towards the gift of each new day

Well, thank you very much to Viv and to Avril for putting on this wonderful conference and for inviting me along to speak to you and a very big thank you to each and every one of you for listening so attentively and putting up with my dodgy verse. It only remains to wish you all the very best in your social work careers and I hope that you will make a huge positive difference to the people you work with and that you will find the profession a rewarding and fulfilling one to be a part of. Thank you so much.