Who are the excluded and the invisible in our country?

Not long ago walking in Bath I came across the excluded and invisible in the course of one day when all the stories and scenes I saw were full of damaged or despairing people.

In the morning I was the guest on a radio phone in. This was a debate about child sexual abuse and this was the culmination of a week of programmes. Some of these events work and some just rehash old opinions but this one produced several deeply felt and powerful stories from the socially excluded and invisible.  One was from a mother of an adult son who had only just heard from him that he’d been abused by the neighbour’s son as they grew up. Shocking enough but as well as that he was now an alcoholic, a direct result, he said, of having to live with his demons. You could hear the despair and frustration in her voice as she sounded genuinely shocked that she’d never known about the abuse. Even worse, he now was waiting to see if he had an irreversible liver condition. All those years when she thought she should have realised what was happening and protected him but, like his need, she now felt marginalised and hidden from help. The welling up of guilt and the anger at the person who hurt him so much.

On the way back I passed a church and there saw was a scene that was timeless and heart rending.

A middle aged woman was sprawled on the steps, drunk or stoned, and a policeman was reaching out to take a look inside her bag. In the space of a second I saw so many different emotions flit across her face. Resentment at the intrusion and the implicit accusation. Embarrassment at the public humiliation. Pain as it forced her to remember some forgotten event and anger that she had no control. Now I’ve no idea what it took to get her to this point. It could have been totally in or totally out of her control but probably was somewhere in between. Then, not far from there, another scene played out as a dad and two young children of about six and eight loudly marched down the road. Dad was swearing at the top of his voice about an argument he’d just had with someone in the council. He was red faced, angry, as stressed as anyone I’ve seen in a long time and clearly unwell. “If they don’t do it you’re going into care!” “I’ll take you down there myself and they can have you!”

Then they disappeared round the corner. The most worrying thing was that the children didn’t seem particularly bothered, as if seeing dad lose control was a daily event and they were invisible to the rest of the world. How many thousands of children have to sacrifice some of their childhood to compensate for ( and often try to manage as much as they can for their age) the mental health problems of their parents?  I went for a coffee and opened the paper and the first story I saw highlighted the reverse situation where a parent has to commit their time and energy coping with a totally dependent relative.

Reading about the death of a young man, discovered by his mother, who had cared for him for years. His learning disability made him profoundly  dependent on her but also dominated her life. Soon after finding his body she took her own life. It reminded me again of the tens of thousands of dedicated people all over the country who care, unseen, unchanging and often unheard, for disabled family members. We don’t know all the story and nor can we second guess the investigation but if it brings home to people the painfully obvious—that there’s so much need out there still to be satisfied. There’s a hidden world, tucked away in all our streets. Carers, young and old, get consumed by the responsibility and sheer physical exhaustion.

So it could have seemed a day of casualties with the mother of the sexually abused son, the father with mental health problems, the woman living on the streets and the tens of thousands of stressed out carers who’s own lives are put on hold–all the excluded and invisible. Any of these stories could be from our families and many of you are living, day in and day out, with the consequences. There is still a netherworld out there that we really have trouble accepting. Probably because it’s too painful and life’s too short. But for those in despair, life’s not short at all and, when I saw that we give more charity money to the donkey sanctuary than we do to victims of abuse, life must seem pretty cruel as well.

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