The Co-op, Council, Citizens Advice Bureau & the consequences

This blog is about something that happened a long time ago but I still feel the effects from it even now and it is something I’ll never stop being angry about. It’s not about hurt feelings or dismissive behaviour it’s about the stripping of dignity under the guise of banking policy and voluntary work.

When I lived in Brislington (a bloody awful part of Bristol that pretends to be nice) I was subject to antisocial behaviour from a group of neighbours. It stemmed from the incident where I refused to lend one of them £10 on the night I moved in and they decided that I was a posh snob who had loads of money.

I don’t speak with a local accent but that doesn’t make me posh anymore than the jobs that I did when I was working. Being a PA doesn’t make you posh, being a publican doesn’t make you posh and working as the manager of a shop doesn’t make you posh it just means that you’ve got somewhere. None of those jobs necessarily attract high salaries but obviously those people thought they did.

It started with small things – I’d go down to the laundry at my allotted time to find the machines full. I’d empty the machines to do my laundry and the person concerned would come down and threaten me. I’d speak to the caretaker who always promised to speak to her but never did and then I’d complain to the council who told me I had to try harder to fit in with the neighbourhood.

Shortly after I moved in I was diagnosed with Manic Depression (which has since changed its name to Bipolar Disorder) and then I really began to struggle.

My bank account (with the Co-operative Bank) didn’t allow direct debits and a lot of the work I did was via an agency which meant that in the lean times (and they were regular but that’s another story) I had to sign on and claim housing benefit. If I couldn’t get to the housing office to pay my rent then it disappeared on food and household bills. I was getting more and more into debt each month.

When I opened my account with the Co-operative Bank I specifically told them that under no circumstances should they offer me loans or credit cards because I would take them, mismanage them and become very ill.

They ignored me.

As it became obvious I was struggling their helping hand came in the form of a credit card which had a limit of £750 and thankfully this didn’t increase in the time that I had it. When it became even more obvious that I was struggling harder they insisted that I take out a bank loan to consolidate my debts, paid it into my account at the wrong time of the month and then blamed me for taking money out to buy food, bus fares and to look after my two cats.

The bank told me that my debt was too large to let go (£1,500) and it would always be there to be reclaimed. When my financial adviser spoke to them about it when I registered Lasting Power of Attorney they said they had no trace of the debt.

Meanwhile the situation with my neighbours was escalating. Regularly I returned from work to be showered with a hosepipe or to find piles of rotting food outside my door. In the evenings their kids (some of the in their late teens) would try to see through the curtains of my bedsit (I had to keep them permanently closed by this time) to see if they could see me in my bed. They stole my post and read it to me as I walked past (the police said it was probably just a joke) and I had to pay to have it diverted which cost me money I didn’t have.

By this time I had a credit card I couldn’t pay off, a loan I couldn’t begin to make payments on and I was 10 weeks in arrears on my rent. I was on the point of being evicted and the housing officers visibly made fun of me when I sat in their office and cried whilst begging for help.

A new manager to the area heard this going on one day and took me into his office. I poured my soul out onto his desk and he listened to me carefully. He immediately wrote off my rent debt and four days later I was moving into the flat where I have lived happily for 16 years.

The next step was to acknowledge my illness and then talk to the bank about my debt. When I asked to see someone to talk things over the assistant announced to the world that they weren’t going to give me anymore money. She cut up my cheque book and debit card and told me that I’d have to go to the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) for a financial statement and until then they would allow me only what they think I could reasonably live on. I sometimes earned £150 a week and the bank would let me have £45 which was barely enough to keep me alive.

The CAB made a big mess of things. They left off my electricity and water bills off the financial statement and made a big fuss when I said I needed a new one. (Apparently I was asking too much of volunteers to get it right!) My electricity bills stopped arriving at home and, as I was moving on to a prepay meter, it was essential to see them. The CAB had told them, when I had given them permission to speak SWEB to ask them to freeze my debt for a while, that I was incapable of looking after my affairs and to send the bills to them. AS IF THAT WAS A SOLUTION TO ANYTHING.

It came as no surprise that shortly after that I crashed and burned and claimed Incapacity Benefit as a short term thing. Sixteen years later I live with the knowledge that I will never work again and the people who were supposed to help made things worse.

The CAB will tell you how wonderful they are but they will not disclose how many people say how wonderful they aren’t. The Co-operative Bank will claim to be ethical but they don’t understand that ethics is as much about treating customers with dignity as it is about not funding arms dealers. The police in the neighbourhood allowed an ill man to be beaten to death and his body set on fire as his pleas re his neighbours went unheard also. The council still don’t get their act together with neighbours and disputes. Nothing has changed.

I’m now in a safe place in all senses of the word safe but how many people aren’t?

The police protect the vulnerable (yeah right)

I recently blogged about being a victim of disability hate crime which I reported to the police. I made a statement and, until I pushed pretty hard, nothing happened. The man who abused me was interviewed today under caution and he denied everything. I didn’t expect him to admit to it but I didn’t really expect the reaction of the police officer who had been handling the case.

An Inspector had intimated that she was not the best officer the force had but her advice shocked me. She suggested that, since it was his word against mine and he denied anything other than an altercation between neighbours, that I buy a body camera (which would cost about £200) and use it to film evidence of the next time he abused me. She seemed rather put out when I suggested that doing that would break the data protection act and that I’d have to warn him I was doing it.

She then described the incident that I had reported as Disability Hate Crime which was then downgraded to Harassment as Anti Social Behaviour which, to my mind, is taking the piss more than a little. What I reported as a serious incident has been written off as a minor blip.

15 years ago I was moved into this flat in an emergency move. I had been the butt of antisocial behaviour by my neighbours. I was working long hours in a high powered job and had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My mail was being stolen (the police suggested I put a notice on the door telling people to leave my mail alone), I was regularly sprayed with water from a hose (accidentally of course) as I was leaving home or coming back. Why was I targeted? I was different from them. I don’t have much of an accent, I worked in a posh office, I had no television and I didn’t socialise with my neighbours much.

The abuse became worse as time went on and every time I complained to the housing office there was sighs down the phone, unwhispered asides of “Who’s going to talk to her THIS time” and barely disguised irritation. I became more and more ill and was at the point of suicide before a housing manager intervened and got me an emergency move.

It feels as though it’s all starting again. If it was this one neighbour I could handle it but another neighbour is also causing me problems. It’s the pack mentality, the targeting of those they see as different or vulnerable or having things better than them. I cannot get into the position that I was last time. I cannot guarantee that I would survive if things get worse as I’m in the middle of what was an acute bout of mania and has now become chronic. My resilience is being eroded and I am disintegrating at a rate of knots.

The police have suggested in all seriousness that I shouldn’t react when I am abused and unless there is a witness not to report it. That means, in reality, that I’m being discouraged from defending myself and being told to accept the abuse. The officer said I had to “be the bigger person” which is a new way of saying accept shit.

Without witnesses they cannot or refuse to try to help. They have suggested illegal means in which to get evidence and abandoned me. Recently a man in a similar situation who was wrongly accused by his neighbours of being a paedophile was murdered by them. The inquiry has revealed that the police thought he was a nuisance.

That’s all I am to them – a nuisance. I’m not a vulnerable person that needs help, I’m not at risk of being ill to (perhaps) the point of suicide and I’ll only be taken seriously if I die.

What can I say – the system is geared towards enabling the perpetrators of anti social behaviour not helping the victims. My options are few – I either fight back alone or I give in and let the police presume that I was embroidering the truth. Some fucking choice.

Why reporting disability hate crime doesn’t pay

I recently reported an incident of hate crime to the police. It was committed against me by someone who had been doing the same sort of thing over the years. Last year the local police, the housing officer and myself decided that I should report it through official channels so it could lay on file as an historical act and contribute to evidence when it happened again. I knew it would happen again, he’s not the kind of person to let go.

I made a statement and was told that the man in question would be interviewed under caution and it was intimated that it would be soon. Two weeks later I still hadn’t heard from the officer who was dealing with the case or even what his or her name was so I rang and asked for a phone call. I didn’t get a phone call.

Yesterday I rang and asked what was going on. The officer had picked up my message and ignored it. The woman at the control centre sighed throughout our conversation and she obviously thought it was unreasonable to expect a phone call in the evening – perhaps she thought people with mental health problems were incapable of answering the phone after a certain time of day. I asked to speak to the officer’s supervising officer. Unsurprisingly he was unavailable so I decided to raise a formal complaint and was told that I would receive a call from an Inspector within 48 hours. I still did not know if the officer who was dealing with the case was male or female and I’m not entirely sure if I was even told their name.

This phone call took 44 minutes including 36 minutes on hold. The Inspector rang me within half an hour because I was raising a complaint. A police officer has not been in touch with me over a crime that was committed three weeks ago but an Inspector can respond to criticism within an hour. Strange that.

The Inspector was offensive. He did not identify himself by either name or rank and had obviously barely scanned my statement as he asked me if there was CCTV on a street the incident didn’t happen on. On being questioned about whether or not Disability Hate Crime was considered to be a priority his answer indicated that it was, but only in theory and implied that mental health wasn’t considered a priority.

He went on to tell me that, even though he hasn’t a mental health problem and has not experienced disability hate crime (or any kind of hate crime) he understood my feelings on the subject perfectly. I challenged this statement by saying that unless he had been in the position I was in and had experienced the feelings then he couldn’t possibly understand how I felt. He claims seeing victims of hate crime gives him this understanding but fails to understand that he is seeing the impact of hate crime not experiencing it himself. He told me we’d have to agree to disagree which is a barely polite way of saying that he didn’t agree with my opinion and thought it without value.

Eventually he told me that the officer concerned should have rang me and done the interview with the man who abused me within days but they didn’t. Some officers are on top of things and others aren’t. Some will let victims know what is going on but others don’t. He thinks this is an adequate explanation and blames the way that the police work. Individual officers, it seems, have no responsibility for their work or the damage (and it has damaged me considerably) not doing it properly causes.

I wonder if he would use these same excuses and terms if I’d been a rape victim or was a member of the family of a murder victim. I think not.

I am going to make a formal complaint via the local PCC when I am a little more able. I’m enduring a crisis with my health that is taking months to get on top of and this series of incidents has made it worse. I could try going via another agency but accessibility is an issue. Accessibility to agencies that can help is not about wheelchairs or hearing loops or leaflets in a multitude of languages for people with mental health problems. Accessibility for me means being able to make a phone call and not stand or sit in a stressful environment for a long time just to see if I’m eligible for an appointment and then if I am I need to be able to speak with confidence to the person who is listening and that they will understand what I’m trying to say.

The Citizens Advice Bureau here fails on all these counts. My last experience with them was so stressful it contributed to my big breakdown which heralded the end of my working life and, as it was about debts and having an income statement to give to the people I owed money to, it was devastating that they missed off one essential outgoing and, for some bizarre reason, had all my bills & correspondence relating to my debts sent to their office. They did this during phone calls where I had given them permission to speak on my behalf and as these phone calls were made in a room away from me I had no input into them. They did not forward the mail on and I only discovered what had happened when the electricity rang me and asked why I hadn’t responded to a letter.

The local branch of Mind in this city have told me in the bluntest possible way that they don’t help people. What they are there to do is a mystery.

Have no doubt about it – these big charities work to a plan that doesn’t always include what is best for their clients. They seem to exist to fulfil their needs and not ours.

I am, in effect, stuck in a cycle of abuse that is being dealt to me by the very people who are supposed to help and can’t get help from outside agencies because, even though they mean well, they are inadequate.

I feel a failure as a person. I’m tough but I’m not unbreakable and currently I am broken. I didn’t become me with bells on as I envisaged when I was 14 years old instead I have become me with a bell, ringing it in advance to warn people that somebody with a severe mental health problem is approaching. That bell has been thrust upon me by authorities, bureaucrats and medics regardless of whether I want it or not. What they should be doing is ringing a full peal to celebrate the person that I am, not tolling a bell of doom warning people of the fears they think I embody.

People. Places. Things.

I’ve been angry today, tearful, deflated, calm and now tired but needing to write about this.

I’ve often bemoaned that social media makes people forget about boundaries and they remove them willy nilly and then complain when other people do it to them. This is the nature of life and it’s something nearly all of us have done; subtweets on Twitter, veiled comments on Facebook, mocking things people have posted on Facebook in the relative safety (we assume) of Twitter and, of course, some people troll.

I can be as rude as the next person. People think I’m lovely and very nice but I hate it when people ignore my boundaries and, as I‘m not very good at saying “Hey, back off buster!” I tend to feel my back against the wall and lash out. It always comes as a surprise, as much to me as the other person. Sometimes they’re totally unaware that they’ve crossed a boundary at all but then that’s them and the way they think not me. Generally though, if rudeness is a sin, then I’m going to hell in a hand basket.

The mute/unfollow/unfriend/block buttons are priceless and I do love that feeling of being able to cut somebody quickly and effectively out of my cyber life. As the target of a cyber stalker some years ago I had to wait while evidence was gathered before I could block them and perhaps I’m a little to ready to cut people out because of that experience but when it comes down to it it’s all about self-protection.

What I do find unforgiveable is the way organisations use social media as a way to put people (also known as customers/service users/taxpayer etc.) in their place. A friendly tone isn’t hard to affect and you don’t really have to mean it, nobody can see the face you pull when you’re pretending to be friendly to somebody irritating across cyber space – nobody can see and it’s harmless.

Two years ago I suggested that my local council use silent fireworks in their displays so that people still got to see something spectacular but local animals didn’t suffer. One of my cats hides under the bath and my newly arrived rescue dog barks when they hear fireworks. I’m not the only person who complains about fireworks but, for some reason the person running Twitter for the council that took my remark personally and did a soft block. A soft block is when you block someone and then unblock them so that they’re not following you. It’s a move that’s designed to irritate and it’s deliberately rude – a slap across the face in a way. The thing is that I wasn’t being sarcastic, there is such a thing as silent fireworks, there’s a company in my city that makes them and they are far more spectacular because the “bang” takes up quite a bit of space. Had they entered into meaningful tweets they would have found this out. I complained via their “Fair Comment” system and, needless to say, I’ve never heard any more of it.

Today the people that made me so dismayed were the local police. I was intimidated and scared (I don’t scare easily) by a large group of street drinkers outside an off licence yesterday evening. The shop owner shouldn’t serve them when they stay outside as it’s in a no drinking zone but they do because they are motivated financially and community comes after profit. The group had a couple of dogs which they were having problem controlling and one of the dogs almost slipped the lead that one of the drunks was holding on to.

I rang the police and, after the initial disinterested response, I was put on hold. After 17 minutes of holding on I abandoned the call. The incident hasn’t been logged via their system so therefore, in their eyes at least, it didn’t happen. I have contacted a local police officer who will do nothing about it and doesn’t actually have to since it’s considered a raised concern and not a crime. So that street is a little less safe from now on and this community has been effectively told that they don’t count.

I tweeted the police and was the response was that they were sorry I was upset but they didn’t apologise for not answering the phone or doing anything to help make the area safer. They suggested that I log it on their website which goes to the beat manager who won’t do a lot about it (as above) and so nothing is done. When I pushed them they told me what constituted a 999 call and what the 101 (non emergency number) is for. So insult added to injury.

So, what has all this got to do with mental health?

When an individual is pissy it’s easy to argue back or hit the block button writing it off as one of life’s little blips as you go. A little rant about it and it’s forgotten before you have time to turn around three time but an organisation when you, as a tax payer or customer, pay the person who’s being rude? Much different.

If there was ever a way to tell somebody that you thought that they were unimportant and, in the case of our valiant police, a bit thick then doing it on social media is the place to make it sting the most. Fight back and you’re written off as little miss angry and, if you’re really unlucky, trolled by their supporters. If you don’t fight back nothing ever changes but fighting back takes time and energy I don’t have. So I’m writing a blog and it’s not going to change anything except the way I feel. Whilst the call centre operator is effectively doing a job that is a penis extension I’m not impotent and I refuse to be treated that way. I’m choosing not to fight because their organisation make it too hard for me but other people will fight back and other people will make changes.

A few years ago I would have got angry, complained, swore, been ignored and ended up manic and very ill. Today I’m letting it go. It’s said that you have no control over people, places and things so I’m not going to try but I’m not letting them control me either.